Discussing Acupuncture to Treat Cancer Side Effects

Recently I had a family member diagnosed with cancer and the recommended treatment was chemotherapy. At the age of 68, he is just above the median age of when most cancer patients are diagnosed. While chemotherapy is one of the most often prescibed forms of treatment, it’s well publicized that it can be accompanied with several unpleasant side effects. Searching for some relief suggestions I came across acupuncture.

I was already familiar with acupuncture as a treatment option due to the fact that recently two different family members had successfully received treatment for gout in their ankle and another had received treatment for knee pain associated with playing baseball and Osgood Schlatter’s disease.

However, for those that are not familiar with acupuncture it might conjure up some unsettling concerns such as is “alternative medicine” safe, what about needle phobia and of course, will it hurt?


Acupuncture is the art of Chinese healing and is thought to be thousands of years old. However, its introduction into the United States is still considered recent, with it being used over the last couple hundred years.

Acupuncture is the use of tiny, hair-thin needles that are shallowly inserted into specific points on a patient's skin at various depths. The needles can be gently moved, or left in place for a short amount of time then removed.


CAM, which stands for complementary and alternative medicine, is the term for medical products and practices that are not part of standard medical care.

Acupuncture is a component of one of four effective CAM modalities that also includes such elements as herbal therapy, Reiki and chiropractic therapy.

How Acupuncture Works

Researchers suggest that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to release natural painkillers and immune system cells. They then travel to weakened areas of the body and relieve symptoms or alleviate pain.

One such example would be serotonin, which is the body's natural pain reliever and it can promote or induce a feeling of wellbeing.

The ancient theories of Chinese medicine suggest that Qi (pronounced chee, a vital force or energy) flows through the body along channels called meridians and are connected by acupuncture points along the body. Acupuncture can alter this flow to restore or optimize good health.

Cancer Treatment

When discussing acupuncture to treat cancer, what we are actually discussing is treating the side effects caused by treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.

The World Health Organization created a list of ailments that could be treated by acupuncture including but not limited to depression, diabetes, headaches, shingles, fibromyalgia and a variety of aches and pains.

Cancer patients are most often seeking relief from dry mouth, hot flashes, breathlessness and fatigue which are some of the most common side effects of treatment.

For a first hand perspective, I reached out to Heather Bergstrom, acupuncturist and owner of Vitality Acupuncture. As it turns out Heather has worked with multiple cancer patients over the years. Early on, while still in school, she worked with a breast cancer group twice a week. The most common symptoms treated were nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Since that first experience she has worked with additional patients suffering from a range of cancers. Specifically when dealing with two separate cases, one patient dealing with multiple myeloma and the other colon cancer, both patients were grateful for the treatment and felt like the sessions had a positive impact on how they were feeling.

Heather went on to share that here in Boise, a local cancer facility employs at least three acupuncturists to work with cancer patients on a regular basis stating that acupuncture can actually help to increase white blood cell counts so patients can tolerate additional chemo, if needed. It can also have a positive effects on appetite and be a welcome relief when patients are dealing with the anxiety and fear that a cancer diagnosis can trigger.

Side Effects of Acupuncture

While acupuncture can be an effective form of treatment and not everyone may encounter side effects, patients should be prepared.

There is always the potential of soreness and or minor bleeding/bruising at the needle sites.  A rare complication may be injury to an organ where a needle has been pushed in too far and sterile, disposable needles are required, otherwise you could be subject to infections.

Patients can also experience lightheadedness, or even fainting. Eating before an appointment may be vital for a successful visit.

Others may experience an emotional release and begin to cry during an appointment. Take this as a positive sign that the treatment and resulting healing is working. From an acupuncture perspective your physical and emotional health are connected.

Keep in mind not everyone may be a good candidate for acupuncture treatments. If you have a bleeding disorder, are taking blood thinners, have a pacemaker or are currently pregnant you may need to cancel or delay treatment. Make sure you have an open conversation with the acupuncturist about your health history.

After a session is completed, take it slow and gentle as you prepare to leave. If you find yourself feeling lightheaded after the treatment, take some time in the waiting room, taking some deep breaths and having some water. Acupuncture can be a physically and emotionally intense experience, and sometimes our bodies are not fully recovered immediately after treatment. It is always acceptable if you need a little extra time.

Image Courtesy of: Heather Bergstrom, Vitality Acupuncture Clinic


C. A.  Newberry

About C. A. Newberry

C.A. Newberry is fascinated by and believes in the power of continued learning. When not at her computer, you can find her at the ballpark with her family.

C. A. Newberry

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