TCM, Acupuncture and Cancer Treatment

TCM, Acupuncture and Cancer Treatment

Acupuncture is an important treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine and uses fine needles inserted at varying depths in strategic nerve-rich points on your body to influence organs, glands, hormones and tissues; research shows benefits in surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and pain management and nausea.

Acupuncture can be used as a complementary cancer treatment

Over the years I’ve been asked to deliver introductory acupuncture tutorials to 2nd to 4th year students at Bristol University Medical School, writes George Cooper (MA Oxon, BSc Hons, PGDip Herb, MATCH, and Practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine). 

I start with an overview of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, including meridian theory which is the cornerstone of acupuncture, then I show them various key techniques, a range of needles and other equipment, and finish with a demonstration. As part of this demonstration I hold a needle already inserted into a student and, without moving it but by focusing my thoughts instead, I change the sensation that the student feels from the needle. The students normally find this experience quite striking.

I am using a method called yinian to channel my “Qi”, and, although this approach may seem somewhat complex and esoteric, it is commonly used by acupuncturists to produce notable therapeutic benefit.

The concept of Qi, and the practitioner’s ability to strengthen Qi and enhance its flow sits at the core of Chinese Medicine.

Qi is frequently translated as “Vital Energy”, but this simplistic moniker tells very little of the story, and is frequently dismissed as wishy washy by critics. Better then to qualify Qi as a descriptive concept of wonderful variety and utility.

Qi describes power, influence and all the abilities and functions of living things to stay alive and restore harmony. In the context of human health Qi represents how the human being works, for example the Qi of spirit and emotion keeps us happy and resilient, Stomach Qi descends and breaks down food and Qi drives the blood to warm and nourish us.

Indeed the Qi of all the organ systems is described in Chinese Medicine.

Qi must constantly flow inside and also on and below the surface of the body for it to function healthily, so the promotion of smooth healthy movement is the essence of Chinese Medicine.

This surface Qi is understood to flow in concentrated channels, called meridians, which have the function of enabling muscle function, strengthening tissues and immunity, and providing warmth and nourishment. The meridians represent concentrations of particular strength and influence, and along these channels there are points of even greater concentration of influence – the acupuncture points; and since the external meridians connect with the internal body the acupuncture points can influence health throughout the body.

To be clear, all that this means is that particular points on the outside of the body can bring about a change within the body, the enactment of these changes are part of what the Chinese call Qi.

From an evolutionary biology perspective it makes sense that there are particular points that can be rubbed or stimulated to enhance health; the genius of the Chinese was to work out that the insertion of a needle into these points rather than pressing or rubbing is particularly potent in this respect.

There are upwards of 360 acupuncture points and each of them has a set of particular therapeutic qualities; in many cases enhancing internal health.

For example neiguan (P6) on the inside of the wrist is well researched in the treatment of nausea (1); this is the point that you press with your “travel bands” to reduce travel sickness. In the language of Chinese Medicine neiguan is said to connect from the wrist to the stomach through its associated meridian.

So the large number of acupuncture points and their associated qualities means that the acupuncturist has many therapeutic options available when working with cancer treatment; a number of which are recognised in a growing body of empirical evidence.

Acupuncture as a supportive treatment with cancer

Acupuncture gives mental emotional support:

A cancer diagnosis can induce many negative emotions, which acupuncture can help manage. The body can only heal when it is “Parasympathetic state” (the state of relaxation), acupuncture helps induce this state. Acupuncture can also help with insomnia (2).

Many clients love coming for regular acupuncture, they find it remarkably relaxing, even if it’s just for a sprained ankle.

Acupuncture provides support during Chemotherapy:

It helps control nausea (3).

It supports the immune system, for example a recent study showed that an acupuncture technique helps the immune system switch to fighting cancer by improving the ratio of neutrophils to lymphocytes (4).

Acupuncture provides radiotherapy support:

Including the management of xerostomia, where salivary function is reduced due to radiotherapy (5).

Acupuncture can also be very effective in expediting the healing of burns and skin irritation; typically a needle is put either side of a burn or a fracture and an electric current run between them to stimulate circulation and healing.

A GP’s husband once dropped a coffee pot on his foot and had terrible burns. It was touch and go whether he would need surgery, so she sent him to me and I treated him in this fashion. The healing rate was remarkable and he avoided the surgery.

Surgery - acupuncture helps preparation and recovery:

Acupuncture improves recovery time after general anaesthetic (6).

Acupuncture helps with pain control:

A protocol called Battlefield Acupuncture is very good for pain control (7).

TCM, Acupuncture and cancer:

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic approach. The client is assessed according to the TCM theory and a diagnosis is reached specifying his or her health imbalances. This diagnosis then indicates the treatment protocol. In the case of acupuncture the TCM treatment protocol is matched to the defined TCM actions of the acupuncture points. This then leads to a treatment that can have benefits like the empirical benefits outlined above.

A TCM practitioner will always have an eye on broader benefits too as part of the holistic approach. This is why TCM can be such a good modality in putting together a cancer treatment plan. Hence an acupuncturist will also be looking at addressing key areas such as liver function, kidney function, vitality and happiness, detoxification and pain control. He or she will also focus on the underlying patterns that led to the cancer in the first place; patterns that are very much specific to the individual and the particular cancer involved.

This is truly multifaceted and actually very difficult to study scientifically, but increasingly appreciated as an important realm of cancer treatment (8).

Henry McGrath, experienced acupuncturist, says - “CANCERactive’s clear-sighted promotion of evidence based complementary therapies is likely to bring so much benefit to people experiencing cancer and its treatment. My clients typically love coming for acupuncture, they enjoy the treatments themselves and the wide range of benefits that can result.

Go to: Acupuncture research shows many health benefits

This article was written for CANCERactive by

George Cooper MA Oxon, BSc Hons, PGDip Herb, MATCM 

Practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine 
Member of the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture UK 
Author of Be Your Own Nutritionist 
twitter - @byonhealth 


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Chinese medicine and cancer
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