The Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center is known all over the world for its innovative cancer treatments. What may be surprising is that members of the Mass General team are supplementing their biomedical cancer treatments with a therapy so ancient that it predates recorded history. The therapy? Acupuncture.
Acupuncture’s premise is that energy (chi) flows through a person’s body over 12 channels and 365 specific points. When one’s chi is disrupted or blocked, problems (such as pain) ensue. By inserting thin needles into the affected points, a trained acupuncturist can restructure and rebalance the blocked chi. This ancient Chinese “medicine” has shown worthwhile effects on cancer patients.
Jessica Gerber, LIC.AC., an acupuncturist who works with the hospital’s Katherine A. Gallagher Integrative Therapies Program stated, “Unlike biomedicine, with acupuncture we can come up with special point prescriptions that we can customize. The beauty of being able to customize the medicine is that you can really get to the root of what people want help with.” With cancer patients, that could mean a reduction in radiation site pain (especially for breast cancer patients), post-surgical pain and the nausea that often accompanies chemotherapy.
As doctors learn more about the efficacy of acupuncture, all the better for cancer patients. Gerber’s recent participation in a Mass General study and paper on acupuncture’s benefits for carpal tunnel syndrome patients has sparked interest in the Cancer Center. She said, “[My patients] like knowing that there’s research going on around the acupuncture. It gives them something to grab onto.”
Gerber and the rest of the research team knew going in that the brain changes over time due to trauma, stress and other factors. She stated, “The very high take a way from the carpal tunnel paper is that acupuncture can help re-map the brain in response to something that is not good for it.” Using acupuncture to re-map the brain varies depending on the symptom it targets. Gerber says, “Headaches sometimes have immediate results, but chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, constipation, diarrhea things we are trying to help regulate could take longer.”
Gerber stated, “Just because the needles are taken out, it doesn’t mean the treatment stops working. It’s really integrative, and you work it into your other treatments.” Cancer is not a one-size-fits-all disease, and acupuncture is not a one-and-done therapy. Patients typically schedule acupuncture between other therapies and appointments and should plan to stay for at least 20 up to about 45 minutes. She recommends two acupuncture treatments a week for the best cumulative effect.
In addition to helping patients experience lessened symptoms, acupuncture also aims to eliminate the symptoms. For example, when a patient has acupuncture before beginning radiation or chemotherapy, it can help throughout the treatment. Gerber explained that she had a throat cancer patient, a runner, who began acupuncture before starting radiation. He could continue his daily runs six weeks into the eight-week therapy.