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Battling Cancer With Acupuncture

This centuries-old technique involving the insertion of small needles just below the skin's surface can help relieve side effects from cancer treatments.

When prescription medications aren’t enough to ease nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy drugs, specialists at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston now turn to an unconventional treatment: acupuncture.

Growing evidence suggests this centuries-old technique, which involves the insertion of small needles just below the surface of the skin, can help treat nausea and other common side effects of cancer drugs. In a 2008 study by researchers at Germany’s Saarland University, for example, 23 children undergoing chemotherapy who received acupuncture were significantly less likely to need anti-nausea medications.

First studied in the West for its ability to relieve acute and chronic pain, acupuncture is also being used to ease a condition called peripheral neuropathy, which results when nerves are damaged by toxic cancer drugs. Acupuncture also may help alleviate hot flashes, a common side effect of treatment for breast cancer.

But the most surprising benefit from acupuncture is relief from xerostomia, a condition that occurs when radiation damages or destroys salivary glands, causing extreme dryness of the mouth. A common side effect of treatment for head and neck cancer, xerostomia can make it difficult for patients to swallow or eat. Acupuncture can help.

“Although we don’t yet know exactly how it works, acupuncture appears to be able to restore salivary function in some patients, offering really significant relief,” says Barrie Cassileth, M.D., who directs the integrative cancer program at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

In a 2009 study at M.D. Anderson, 19 patients suffering from this common side effect who received acupuncture for four weeks reported significant relief from dry mouth and an overall improvement in physical well-being. A similar study conducted at University of Sao Paulo in Brazil also recorded significant increases saliva production among cancer patients given acupuncture treatments.

Not everyone responds to acupuncture, admits M. Kay Garcia, an acupuncturist who conducts research into the therapy at M.D. Anderson. “But what we find is that many of those who do benefit see a lot of improvement.” Garcia is convinced from her clinical experiences that acupuncture boosts the cancer-fighting potency of chemotherapy and radiation, even if there is limited evidence as yet.

Fortunately, acupuncture has few risks, except for occasional bruising where the needles are inserted and bleeding in patients prone to bleeding. Still, experts say it’s important to find a trained and experienced practitioner. A good place to start is the National Credentialling Center for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, which maintains a list of board-certified acupuncturists on its website at www.nccaom.org.

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.

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