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Ask an expert - body - cancer

15 questions

Q: My wife has been suffering. from a  brain tumour for the past six years. She has had two surgeries and two radio therapies having been operated ten days ago. Doctors say tumours may recur in future. Can it be prevented by acupuncture treatment is it safe and can it be treated along with allopathic medicine?

A:  We are sorry to hear of your wife's predicament.

We have to be honest and say that there is no evidence that we have, either formal through studies or informal through anecdotal accounts, that acupuncture treatment could prevent the recurrence of brain tumours. We would not even be able to say how this could be measured; sometimes tumours simply do no recur and it would be impossible to determined whether something like acupuncture had been central to this happening.

The best that we can say is that acupuncture treating done according to traditional principles is aimed at balancing up the whole system to optimise its functions in the simple belief that a system in balance is  better equipped to deal with symptoms as they arise. This may have the impact of improving someone's ability to deal with quite aggressive conventional treatment, and may even have the effect of slowing down the progress of a chronic degenerative condition. More than this, though, we could not say.

Each person is different, however, and the only real way to get a sense of what may be possible for 'non-standard' conditions like this is to visit a practitioner and have a face to face chat so that they can see what is going on with the whole system. Most BAcC members are more than happy to sit down with a prospective patient for a short chat without charge to assess the potential benefits of treatment, and we hope that your wife is well enough to make such a visit.

As far as safety is concerned, acupuncture remains one of the safest forms of treatment around, with some of the lowest incidences of adverse events. It can also be used successfully alongside conventional treatments, and all acupuncturists are trained to ensure that they take conventional treatment into account when formulating treatment plans, especially when this treatment can render a patient immuno-compromised and not quite so well defended as they would normally be. You can read about acupuncture safety as


Q: Please can you advise me if there are any contraindications to using acupuncture during conventional treatment of breast cancer in a woman aged 25?
For example, could it cause any conflicts during chemo or radiotherapy therapy treatment? I have researched the positive effects and do not find much in the way of acupuncture opposing treatment in anyway. 

A:  There is, as you say, quite a bit of evidence gathering for the use of acupuncture to treat the side-effects of chemotherapy, as you can see in the relevant sections of our factsheet on nausea

There is also a growing body of evidence for the treatment of chemo-induced neuropathy, although not quite robust enough for us to make claims of efficacy.

In general, the use of acupuncture to help with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy is becoming well established within cancer treatment centres. The only contra-indications we have ever encountered are to do with the treatment of the limb beneath where lymph nodes have been stripped. In mastectomies and even some lumpectomies the lymph nodes under the armpit are stripped as well, and the received wisdom is that treatment of the affected arm creates an enhanced risk of infection, especially if the person has lymphoedema as a consequence of the removal of the glands. 

There has been a considerable amount of argument inside the profession about this, because in China doctors happily treat the affected limbs with acupuncture, and we can find no evidence of any 'smoking gun', a case where infection has been attributed to acupuncture treatment. We strongly suspect that this arose from the view of a small number of consultants and in the absence of evidence either way everyone has played safe. This is not an impediment to treatment, however. One of our colleagues, Beverley de Valois, has published several very authoritative studies showing that treatment according to traditional principles using substitute points elsewhere on the body has been just as effective as local treatment. A full list of her publications is to be found here:

The main factor which we have to bear in mind is that someone being bombarded with chemicals and radiation is immuno-suppressed and may not have as much resistance as the average patient. As a result we take special care with such patients, and may, for example, routinely swab all points before needling where normally we rely on professional judgement. Our health and safety consultant was always emphatic, though, that following our Codes of Safe Practice to the letter was a guarantee of safety from cross infection.

There is no evidence, either, of conflicts with any other forms of conventional treatment, as in trying to restore cells which the conventional treatment is trying to destroy. Because we are working from a different paradigm the treatments are aimed at different levels of function within the body, and do not cancel each other out.

If you do decide to have some acupuncture treatment, and we believe it will probably offer some real benefits, you can discuss this in depth with your practitioner. Our members are well informed on areas like this, and have had to address similar concerns on many occasions.

Q:  We have a family friend who is suffering from severe pain in his knees as a result of advanced cancer. The hosiptal has stopped treatment as there is
nothing they can do as a result he is just on medication from the local GP to reduce the pain, which  doesn't seem to be that effective. Would acupuncture be
something that could help, block / reduce this pain?

A:  Acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain has a long history, and also some reasonably good evidence of success, as our factsheet shows  After Nixon's visit to China in the 1970s a great deal of
research was done into acupuncture and pain control after the sight of people having surgery without anasethetic. The measurements of the neurotransmitters
involved in normal pain relief are easily measured, and this fitted well with the standard research models. Much of the evidence showed that acupuncture
treatment in addition to conventional treatment had a significant impact.

From a Chinese medicine point of view, pain arises from the blockage or weakness in the flow of energy, or 'qi' as it is called. The skill of the practitioner lies in knowing precisely why the blockages or weaknesses are occurring, and treating to ensure that the problem is addressed at source. If the local problem has a systemic source, then treatment needs to be addressed at the system as a whole, which is why a similar pain in twenty patients can be treated in twenty different ways according to their individual

As far as your family friend's case is concerned, we are confident that acupuncture treatment would have some effect, and our main concern would be exactly how much effect and how sustainable that effect is. All forms of acupuncture, both traditional and western medical, would expect to be able to provide temporary relief, but it would then be a balance between the extent and duration of the effect and the cost of achieving it. Acupuncture treatment would certainly do no harm, and since we treat the person as much as the pain itself there may even be some secondary benefits to the system as a whole.

The best advice we can give, and which we do almost every time, is that a visit to a BAcC member local to you will undoubtedly give you/them a much better indication of what may be possible. What we do not know, and which limits our comments, is the kind of cancer from which he is suffering and how much the pain is a reflection of metastases in the area. If the cancer lies in the bone itself that may have a significant impact on the efficacy of treatment, and may also restrict to a degree where needles can be placed. A skilled practitioner will be able to give you a much better assessment by looking at what is happening, and by asking a few more direct questions.

Q: I am trying to find an acupuncturist familiar with treating chemo induced peripheral neuropathy.

A:  We are happy to say that almost all of our members are likely to be familiar with treating the effects of chemotherapy, so prevalent is the treatment and so survivable many of the conditions for which it is the primary treatment option. If you enter the terms 'ncbi acupuncture chemotherapy induced neuropathy' in google , you will generate a number of results which show studies supporting the use of acupuncture treatment in helping this problem. Most of the studies conclude that further and better studies are necessary, but the general tone is one of encouragement.

From a Chinese medicine perspective, of course, neuropathy is understood rather differently and treated not simply as a result of the effects of chemical damage but as this against the backdrop of the patient's health. This is one of the greatest strengths of traditional acupuncture, that it aims to understand the presentation of symptoms in each individual patient rather than simply applying a general formula treatment. All of our members are trained in this approach, and our growing popularity over the years is testament to how well this approach works.

As far as finding a practitioner is concerned, using the practitioner search function on our home page will generate a number of people within easy reach. We typed 'Beckenham' in the search function and were given six options within a short walk from the town centre. You also have a greater number of options in nearby boroughs or at the end of the train line  - we have nearly 600 members working within Greater London. 

Q: Could you please give me details of acupuncturists practicing in Central London who have experience in treating cancer patients. My husband has throat cancer and is receiving radiotherapy. i would very much like him to be treated for pain relief by an acupuncturist.

A:  Our stock response to these sorts of requests is that as well-trained generalists working within a Chinese medicine tradition which treats the patient, not the condition, any of our members should be able to offer you the same exemplary standards of care and treatment. The only areas where we have spent time investigating standards for expert practice are obstetrics, paediatrics and mental health issues. In all three there is a strong argument for recognising the additional training which members undertake, often in conventional medicine but also drawing on the experience of practitioners who have made these areas their entire practice focus for twenty years or more.

However, our own view is that the treatment of patients during cancer treatment is a strong candidate for the next round of expert practice investigations. Our experience in working with chemotherapy and radiotherapy patients is that both treatments have a substantial number of energetic as well as physical effects, and treating the person constitutionally is not always sufficient to offer the greatest benefit, good but not necessarily optimal.

Our hands are tied a little insofar as we cannot recommend individual practitioners, even though we know of several members who work within major cancer care establishments. Our advice to you would be to contact some of the more well-known treatment centres like the Royal Marsden or UCH and see if they offer acupuncture services within their brief and if so whether your husband can attend any of the clinics which they offer. If not, they may be able to recommend acupuncturists with whom they are associated.

Some of the leading experts in the field are not BAcC members but medical acupuncturists, but we are aware from their publications over the years that their expertise is considerable, and as we intimated above, traditional treatment may not always be sufficient in itself for dealing with the after-effects of radiotherapy. Chemotherapy is more commonplace, and most members will have a least a handful of patients at any one time following chemo regimes. Radiotherapy is less common.

Whichever route you follow, we would advise you to be a little cautious. There are a number of acupuncture facilities in the private cancer care field which offer acupuncture but there is no way online to check the bona fides of the practitioners. we believe that for your husband's optimal care you need to be looking at a properly trained traditional acupuncturist or a practitioner with several years of demonstrable experience working in this sector.  

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