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Acupuncture On Cancer Patients

Updated on April 10, 2021

The Effects of Acupuncture on Cancer Patients

What if one could accomplish healing within the body, alongside our US medical system without harsh medications which have severe long term affects, without depending on pills to solve your problems, and without worry of the irreparable damage you could potentially be doing to yourself? While it began unknown, and frowned down upon by many, a new form of healing known as Acupuncture came into play during the New Stone Age around 10,000-6,000 BCE when stones were refined into fine needles and served as instruments of healing. (Kemp, Pamela, 2012). Slowly, but surely, Acupuncture made its way across the world and is now practiced throughout many countries. “Acupuncture has its origins in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is based on the theory that one can regulate the flow of ‘Qi’, or vital energy, by the stimulation of certain points on the body with needles, or with pressure in the case of acupressure. Current scientific evidence points to the nervous system as the mediator of acupuncture's effects” (Filshie, & O'Regan, 2010, 1). The history of acupuncture, like all other modalities has a deeper meaning behind its name; “The term acupuncture derives its meaning from the Latin acus, needle, and punctura, a puncture. It is a method of preventing, diagnosing, and treating disease by inserting metal needles into the body at designated locations-acupuncture points” (Armstrong, 1972, 1852). Simply said, acupuncture is, “the insertion of slender, solid needles into specific points in the skin, a technique of Chung-i, Chinese medicine” (Bowers, 1972, p 143). When acupuncture first came about, acupuncturists began using stone needles, bone needles, moved onto bronze, gold for the rich, and silver.

Today, needles can be just as thin as or thinner than a strand of hair. “They are usually made of stainless steel, varying in length from one to seven inches with a wire wrapped around the blunt end to aid in handling. They are like a fine sewing needle, rather than the hollow needles used for injections” (Armstrong, 1972, 1582). The needles used for acupuncture treatments hold no medicine inside the needle, and the only form of medicine used is the blunt needle, itself. The acupuncture needle, “most commonly, is inserted by rotating it between the thumb and index finger using slight pressure in a downward direction.” (Armstrong, 1972, 1582). The speed, angle of rotation, and depth of puncture, the duration, and the frequency of treatments is determined on the diagnosis by the acupuncturist for each individual patient. “Theoretically, with acupuncture, it is possible to help or cure any disease that can be affected by a physiologic process” (Armstrong, 1972, 1584). There are roughly 361 acupuncture points on the body, but only 42 extraordinary points that exist. The location of these points vary from the scalp, the ears, the chest, the abdomen, all extremities, and everywhere in between all the way to your toes. It is believed that each point is directly connected to certain areas of your body, or mind. The acupuncture point on the thumb is connected to the lungs whereas points on the ears are directly related to stress.

The specific points or areas the needles are placed are known as “meridians”. This is where the Chinese believe the “qui”, or the “life energy” flows. “The pain or sensation indicating disease in that organ is registered along the path of the meridian for that specific organ” (Armstrong, 1972, 1582). The ideas of balance and equilibrium have been incorporated into Chinese medicine for from the very beginning. Their idea of balance has to do with Yin, and Yang. “A human being is a microcosm constantly interacting with the larger universe which influences and controls every aspect of his life, including his health. Tao is the central unity and there are two opposing forces, yang and yin, which must be maintained in perfect harmony, otherwise illness will supervene” (Bowers, 1973, 143).

What are the notions behind Yin, and Yang? “Yang is male, positive, bright, and warm, the sunny side of the hill, while yin is female, negative, dark, and cold, the shady side of the hill” (Bowers, 1973, 143). The two are assumed to be present throughout the human body. Acupuncture is the most popular, and first form of healing a patient turns to in China, but why? “The human body was deified in China as a sacred treasure and any violation of its integrity by dissection or surgery was unthinkable” (Bowers, 1973, 143). Using needles to target the affected areas was the only way to heal, and respect the beliefs of the sacred treasure.

Many times, our bodies adapt to pain and often times we forget, “When we have a stomach ache, or a tag on our shirt that irritates our neck, eventually, our brains say, ‘well, it’s not killing me, so I’ll just forget about it’, instead of dealing with the problem. Acupuncture is like a light switch targeting that pain and telling the body it needs to fix it, right away” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). The goal of the acupuncturist is to target the points, which are out of balance, to restore or adjust the energy flow so that the patient is once again in equilibrium. The Chinese believe, “Health and disease are also influenced by an extensive series of correspondences based on the five elements: wood, fire, metal, water, and earth” (Bowers, 1973, 143). When one does not have enough balance of any of the five elements, their health may be compromised. During the initial evaluation with the patient, an acupuncturist may determine they do not have enough water, so, he or she may suggest the patient get a fish tank, or a small water feature to place in their bedroom. If they do not have enough wood, the acupuncturist may suggest planting a tree in the backyard.

Using needles to restore the balance and flow of energy is not the only tool used by acupuncturists. Many acupuncturists like Pam Kemp use herbs and energy therapy as healing modalities. Kemp uses a rare, wild mushroom called cordyceps on her cancer patients. “Cordyceps is commonly used in Chinese medicine. That is why I became so familiar with it. The fungi inhibits the growth, division, and multiplying of cancer cells in the body” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). Cordyceps along with many other herbs have been formulated into prescription drugs, but only extracting the part that is known to heal. “Because of this, there are harsh side effects that a patient would not experience if they have ingested the entire herb, which would have counteracted with those side effects” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). Energy therapy involves the ability of the healer to channel healing energy into the person which is often done with a hands-off method but there are also hands-on, and distant, or absent. “The healer places their hands over, and around the affected area and moves them around up and down, and in a circular motion (Kemp, Pam, 2012). The patient may begin to feel a sensation that is much like the feeling when one’s foot is beginning to fall asleep.

Acupuncture can be done anywhere, but it is usually done in a comfortable enclosed setting where the lighting is dim, and soft, calming music without lyrics plays in the background. “I have done it all, from a doctor’s office, in my own home office, and in a mall parking lot in the middle of the night. As long as the procedure is sterile, and the needles are left in for the right amount of time, the healing process should work” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). Turning the corner onto Pam Kemp’s street, where she maintains a home office, you are welcomed by a beautiful home, with scenic trees and beautiful shrubbery, you become relaxed before you even enter. Welcomed by aromas that are specifically used in the process of calming one’s tense feelings, you start to feel at ease and at peace with yourself. The acupuncture room has dim lighting, and the sound of bubbles from the crystal clear fish tank that stretches across the room enlightens your ears, while the soft sound of music that uses delta melodies, calms you completely. The fresh smell of clean linen used on the sheets of the massage table begins to fill your nose. The sight of books that range from Chinese medicine and acupuncture, all the way to herbal remedies subconsciously puts one’s mind at ease knowing Pam is very knowledgeable and well educated in the fields.

While acupuncture medicine began with practitioners known as “barefoot doctors” whom had no formal education, and most likely learned the practice from their father who might have been a doctor. Unfortunately, due to many mishaps and complications resulting from the practice of acupuncture, it became necessary to crack down and up the bar for entering into the field. The modern road to becoming an acupuncturist is long, and agonizing. “This career is definitely not one for the weak” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). California maintains the highest requirements in the United States for one to become a licensed acupuncturist. They must now obtain a Master’s of Science degree from an accredited college of oriental medicine. “The program I was in required us to complete the Master’s program in three years” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). Upon graduating, the soon-to-be acupuncturist must pass an arduous California Board Exam in order to become a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist. The fun is not quite over yet, “each year, we must also obtain 50 continuing education units every two years to maintain our licenses. These are like seminars, kind of like what teachers are expected to do. It’s about a full week each year” (Kemp, Pam, 2012).

People seek out acupuncture therapy for a variety of reasons, but, one thing remains constant; some part of their lives’ whether it be physically, mentally, or emotionally, is no longer in equilibrium. For some, they like the thought of being healed from the inside out, without the use of harmful medications with even worse side effects. For others, it is the last resort when medicine has failed them. “I see all types of patients from depression, shoulder pain, back pain, neck pain, severe head-aches, concentration and memory issues all the way to cancer” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). Pam recalled one patient who was so high on drugs that needed severe dental work done, it was the first time she had to use acupuncture as anesthesia, and it worked.

As anesthesia, acupuncture has several advantages over other types of anesthesia. With acupuncture, blood pressure is not lowered and respiratory tract complications do not occur postoperatively. There is no interruption in the patient's hydration and no postoperative nausea or vomiting. The patient's pain threshold is increased, making it possible to perform minor procedures associated with the surgery without additional anesthesia (Armstrong, 1972, 1585-1586).

When I asked her how many patients she has, and how many have continued to go to her, she laughed replying, “Well, I try to graduate my patients. That is the wonderful thing about acupuncture, instead of taking medication to relieve the pain, I can get in there and heal it! The sooner they come to me after an injury, the faster it works. However, I do have some patients that I like to call ‘looneys’ who find something else wrong with them after I cure the last thing” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). The worse patient Pam has been presented with was an elderly man, “He was very ill with cancer, given 2 months to live, and could not do anything for himself, had to have help with eating, bathing, driving, meals, everything” (Kemp, Pam, 2012). Pam performed acupuncture on the patient to help relieve pain and sickness resulting from the treatments he had undergone, and the Cordyceps mushroom. “It has been over 5 years now, and he is more independent than ever”.

In 2000, my mother was diagnosed with Stage one breast cancer at the age of 38. She underwent a lumpectomy, and radiation. While the treatments were not as harsh as most experience, it took a major toll on her body. Her taste was compromised; “Loss of taste and difficulty in speaking and swallowing are hallmarks of the condition. Recently, acupuncture treatment has been found to increase blood flow to the parotid glands, increase salivation, and to stimulate tissue regeneration in radiotherapy-damaged glands” (Filshie & O’Regan, 2010, 4). She was taking Tamoxifen, which caused severe insomnia and early onset of menopause. The hot flashes alone were unbearable. Her oncologist who just so happened to be a very good family friend saw the toll it had taken on my mother and suggested acupuncture. Soon, the hot flashes were manageable, and she was sleeping through the nights. Joint pain is is known to have been a huge issue with breast cancer patients, “there is emerging evidence to demonstrate the analgesic effectiveness of both acupuncture and electro acupuncture in breast cancer patients experiencing joint pain as a result of adjuvant aromatase inhibitor treatment” (Filshie & O’Regan, 2010, 2). Each symptom and side effect that was thrown at her, the acupuncturist was able to target and stabilize. She was in remission for 8 years when she was once again diagnosed with breast cancer my freshman year in college. This time it was stage two and the doctors acted fast with a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Knowing what to expect, even worse this time, the one place of treatment my mother went willingly and actually looked forward to, her acupuncturist. While my mother has been battling with breast cancer on and off for over twelve years, acupuncture has been the only form of treatment to tremendously help with all side effects resulting from the harsh treatments.

While chemotherapy, radiation, dialysis, and other forms of cancer treatments break down, diminish, and deteriorate the body, “Acupuncture stimulation at the point PC6 has repeatedly been shown to be a clinically useful anti-emetic treatment for post-operative nausea and vomiting and chemotherapy-induced emesis” (Filshie, & O'Regan, 2010, 3). “By 1998, the National Institute for Health in the US stated that, “acupuncture is a proven effective treatment modality for nausea and vomiting” (Filshie, & O'Regan, 2010, 3). When a cancer patient has had enough of the traditional Western medicine, and they feel as though their last hope may be acupuncture, it is said that they have turned to a different form of healing like; “Unconventional therapies generally refer to medical practices that are offered as an alternative to conventional medicine for preservation of health and diagnosis and treatment of medical disorders” (Trotter, 1979, 299). With all of the medication a cancer patient is forced to take, the painless insertion of a needle is said to be quite a relief.

Along with nausea comes fatigue; “Fatigue is also an adverse side-effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which can persist long after the cessation of treatment. In a prospective phase II study on patients with persistent fatigue who previously had completed chemotherapy, acupuncture resulted in a significant reduction in baseline fatigue scores” (Filshie & O’Regan, 2010, 7). The improvement rates with acupuncture vs. traditional medicine were astounding, “acupuncture was associated with a 36% improvement in baseline fatigue scores, which accords well with the prospective trial and was significantly superior to acupressure and sham acupuncture” (Filshie & O’Regan, 2010, 7). Despite the fact that the medicine may be doing its job, the toll it takes on one’s body is excruciating. The tiredness, dizziness, irritability, and depression are just a few of the undisclosed agreements that are in the hidden contract when you unwillingly take on the cancer fight. “Acupuncture was associated with a 36% improvement in baseline fatigue scores, which accords well with the prospective trial and was significantly superior to acupressure and sham acupuncture” (O'Regan, & Filshie, 2010, 7). Not only does chemotherapy attack the body’s cells, it also attacks the immune system making it very easy for the patient to fall ill. “Acupuncture stimulation enhances T cells, B cells and other immune functions” (Johnston, Ortiz-Sanchez, Vujanociv, & Li, 2009, 7). If acupuncture has been proven to help decrease the progression and pain in a cancer patient, why not? “In cancer-specific pain management, a placebo controlled RCT found that auricular acupuncture was effective compared with two controls for cancer patients with various forms of neuropathic pain” (O'Regan, & Filshie, 2010, 2). The two upper sternal ‘ASAD’ points — anxiety, sickness and dyspnoea points are used extensively in the UK to control dysponea and also anxiety if found to be helpful following an initial treatment. Patients can massage acupuncture studs for 1–2 min on demand to provide anxiolysis (Filshie and Thompson, 2009). This has the added benefit of empowering the patient to control these distressing symptoms in the event of a panic attack (O'Regan, & Filshie, 2010, 8). In order to fight cancer with everything the patient has, it is necessary that their immune system is up to par. It is our hope that, “future communication and research about the potential of acupuncture to enhance anticancer immune functions” (Johnston, Ortiz-Sanchez, Vujanociv, & Li, 2009, 8).

The interesting mechanism behind acupuncture is the fact that it works with the mind, body, and spirit, working in sync with each other until the body is once again whole, and balance is restored. Western society has been brainwashed into relying on medication and we have somehow grown into the popular belief that all we have to do is pop a pill and our problems will be cured. Acupuncture goes much deeper than that, seeking and finding the problem, “modern diagnostic techniques are used in conjunction with acupuncture, emphasis is also placed upon interviewing the patient and observing colors, odors, and emotions in great detail” (Armstrong, 1972, 1584), and dealing with it head on, without medication. The Chinese traditional healing methods are soothing, relaxing, and their goal is to restore equilibrium that has somehow been lost along the way. When one walks into a crowded doctor’s office or emergency room in the AMA tradition, intense feelings of uneasiness and anxiety fill one’s body and mind. The Western medical system has fallen into a pattern of the patient telling the practitioner the symptoms they have been feeling, and the physician diagnoses and prescribes a medication for the problem, without going into further detail about why, or how the patient fell ill. “Most references concerning acupuncture stress the importance of the whole man, in whom nothing happens in isolation but in relationship to other events occur-ring in his internal or external environment” (Armstrong, 1972, 1587). An acupuncturist goes above and beyond finding the reasons for the ailment, and treating the whole person, not just one area of the body.


Armstrong, Margaret. (1972). Acupuncture. The American Journal of Nursing , Vol. 72, No. 9

(Sep., 1972), pp. 1582-1588. Retrieved April 14, 2012, from JSTOR database.

Bowers, John. (1972). Acupuncture. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society , Vol.

117, No. 3 (Jun. 15, 1973), pp. 143-151. Retrieved April 10, 2012, from JSTOR database.

Filshie, J., & O’Regan, D. (2010). Acupuncture and Cancer. Acupuncture from a physiological

perspective. Volume 157, Issues 1-2, (October 28, 2010), pp. 96-100. Retrieved April 22,

2012, from, Google Scholar database.

Johnston, M., Ortiz-Sanchez, E., Vujanociv, N., and Li, W. (2009). Acupuncture May Stimulate

Anticancer Immunity via Activation of Natural Killer Cells. Retrieved April 22, 2012

from PubMed database.

Kemp, Pamela, California Licensed Acupuncturist since 2006 (Personal communication,

interview, March 7, 2012 and April 13, 2012).

Trotter, Robert, J., Acupuncture for Everything Else. Science News, Vol. 116, No. 17 (Oct. 27,

1979), pp. 299-300. Retrieved April 21, 2012 from JSTOR database.


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© 2012 BriannaGalapir


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