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Acupuncture as an Integrative Therapy for Cancer Patients at the Massachusetts General Hospital

Photo Credit: Mass General Cancer Center

When “J” was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, she knew there would be a long course of treatment.  She also knew she wanted to incorporate integrative therapies such as acupuncture into her treatment plan.  She was able to do so through services offered by the Katherine A. Gallagher Integrative therapies program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center

“From the very first days of my treatment I was immensely grateful for the wonderful spectrum of Wellness and Support Programs available to me and to all cancer patients at MGH through the Gallagher Program. In particular, receiving acupuncture regularly and consistently at MGH during chemotherapy, radiation and recovery, became the cornerstone of my ability to manage anxiety, reduce nausea, and to lessen fatigue.  The acupuncturists came to know me and my medical history well and were able to communicate directly with my medical team to better personalize my acupuncture over time to complement every phase of my medical treatment plan.”

The Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center offers many support programs designed to help patients, their families and caregivers cope with the challenges of a cancer diagnosis.  Integrative therapies recognize that a multifaceted approach is needed in order to support patients throughout their treatment.   There is a growing body of evidence showing acupuncture and acupressure can help cancer patients to manage their side effects and enhance their quality of life.

Acupuncture uses fine, sterile needles applied to specific areas of the body to stimulate energy flow. Acupressure involves applying gentle pressure to these same points with the hands. It can help reduce stress and relieve symptoms and side effects related to cancer treatment such as:

  • Appetite Loss
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dry Mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Lymphedema
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Pain
  • Sleep Problems
  • Urinary and Bladder Problems
  • Headache

The Acupuncture team coordinates care with the rest of the oncology team to decide if acupuncture or acupressure could be beneficial for a particular patient.

Research has been conducted on the efficacy of acupuncture to relieve symptoms, and there is strong evidence to suggest that acupuncture plays a significant role in reducing effects of cancer related symptoms. Though there is less research about the immunological benefits of acupuncture, some studies conducted in China suggest that it does play a key role in improving immune function, which can have positive effects in fighting cancer and infection resulting from treatment.

The top 10 Cancer Centers in the U.S. (according to U.S.News and World Report) all have Integrative Medicine Service or Integrative Therapies Programs, which include acupuncture.  In the Boston area, many offer acupuncture to cancer patients. This trend parallels a broader trend of increasing use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) among cancer patients, estimated in some surveys to range between 48% and 83%.

The mechanism of action of acupuncture has been of great interest to many researchers. Numerous mechanistic studies of acupuncture in animal models and humans suggest that the effect of acupuncture is primarily based on stimulation to and the responses of the neuroendocrine system involving the central and peripheral nervous system

Acupuncture when practiced by a clinician with specialized training in oncology is a safe and effective therapy to manage cancer treatment related symptoms, while giving patients the ability to actively participate in their own care plan.

Research is ongoing both in understanding the mechanism of action and in evaluating acupuncture’s efficacy for specific symptoms.  Researchers are also looking at the cost effectiveness of acupuncture to help manage persistent pain, anxiety and other symptoms in conjunction with standard of care.  It is expected that as more evidence continues to emerge, oncology acupuncture eventually will be integrated into standard oncology practice. The successful integration of acupuncture at major academic medical and research facilities, such as Massachusetts General Hospital and other major cancer centers, underscores the need for and value of acupuncture in cancer care.

To learn about additional cancer-related research, visit www.massgeneral.org/cancer.