A common reason people seek out complementary and alternative (CAM) treatment is to avoid the known side effects of conventional treatment. There is increasing evidence that acupuncture and East Asian herbal therapies may be able to reduce these adverse effects, such as pain and digestive symptoms caused by cancer drugs, and therefore improve compliance with traditional pharmaceutical interventions. This article will discuss three instances in which acupuncture and herbal medicine have been researched and evidenced as useful additions to conventional cancer treatment.
A recent clinical trial examined acupuncture as a treatment option for the side-effects from aromatase inhibitors, which are a class of drugs used in the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Aromatase Inhibitors (AIs) are typically taken for an extended course of treatment, usually for a five year duration. However, about half of patients have trouble tolerating the drug for the entire prescribed time, in part due to its side effects. The most common of these is joint pain, which can be debilitating in many cases. Many patients are not interested in taking additional pills to manage symptoms caused by their AI’s. This is where acupuncture can be an effective intervention. In an earlier meta-analysis of several studies, “significant pain reduction” was noted following 6-8 weeks of acupuncture treatment. In the recent phase III randomized trial, the positive effects of acupuncture were not only significant, but persisted for 12 weeks after treatment had been stopped. In this study, acupuncture produced not only notable, but also lasting pain-relieving effects.
For patients undergoing chemotherapy, the studies suggest usefulness of acupuncture in support of usual medical care. Over the years, evidence has endorsed acupuncture as an adjunct therapy for those taking chemotherapy, particularly for the relief of nausea. The NIH cites “clear evidence” supporting acupuncture for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting since a Consensus Development Conference a decade ago. Studies have also been favorable for acupuncture in the relief of chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy and pain.
Chinese herbal medicine is also finding a role in supporting compliance with standard cancer treatment. The Han dynasty herb formula Huang Qin Tang (PHY906) has been studied as an adjunct to usual chemo drugs, in order to improve the patient’s ability to tolerate the chemotherapy. In these early studies, patients reported fewer side effects, particularly a reduction in severe diarrhea. Since diarrhea is a main dose-restricting factor for the types of drugs studied, the trial suggests that concurrent use of these herbs along with chemotherapy increases tolerability of proper treatment, likely by reducing toxicity and healing gut epithelium. It was also determined that the reduction of adverse effects was not accompanied by reduction in the effectiveness of the chemotherapeutic agents.
The above outcomes suggest a different, more supportive role for acupuncture and herbal therapies with traditional care, even in serious illnesses. One of the reasons why some doctors are hesitant to recommend “alternative” treatments is that they fear patients will abandon conventional medicine. Patients should be encouraged to use proven methods, and the addition of complementary and alternative therapies improves the ability of patients to tolerate and comply with standard care.
Written by Beth Bloomfield, L.Ac., MS