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Acupuncture in the supportive care of people living with and beyond cancer

Acupuncture in the supportive care of people living with and beyond cancer

By Beverley de Valois, Research Acupuncturist at the Mount Vernon Cancer Centre

People receiving a diagnosis of cancer are routinely offered a cocktail of treatment options with curative or life-prolonging intent.  What is not intended is the assortment of distressing and unpleasant side effects that may accompany these treatments, and which may continue for years after treatment ends.

Acupuncture can play an important role in addressing these troublesome symptoms, offering people a safe, non-pharmacological option for managing wellbeing.  Additionally, it can support recovery after treatment, facilitate a return to active living, and enhance quality of life.

The Supportive Oncology Research Team (SORT), operating within Mount Vernon Cancer Centre (part of the East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust) has a long-standing focus on researching acupuncture’s potential to improve the wellbeing of people living with and beyond cancer. This research is led by Dr Beverley de Valois PhD, a traditional Licensed Acupuncturist and Fellow of the British Acupuncture Council.  During her 20 years as Research Acupuncturist, she has investigated a number of key areas:

  1. Acupuncture to manage breast cancer treatment related hot flushes and night sweats
    This study investigated traditional acupuncture’s role as a non-pharmaceutical option for women suffering menopausal symptoms associated with adjuvant hormonal treatments prescribed to prevent breast cancer recurrence. Women reported:
    • A nearly 50% reduction in hot flush frequency at the end of 8 acupuncture treatments
    • Reductions of 42% continuing 18 weeks after treatment ended
    • Improvements in quality of sleep, memory and concentration with reduced anxiety, depressed mood, and other symptoms
    • Vasomotor symptoms were less bothersome.
  2. Ear acupuncture in small groups reported similar outcomes to the traditional acupuncture study. Consequently, the Lynda Jackson Macmillan Centre (the cancer information and drop-in centre allied to Mount Vernon Cancer Centre) has been offering this resource-efficient service since 2005. In analysis of 10 years of service data, users reported:
    • 43% reduction in hot flush frequency after 8 treatments, sustained at 18 weeks after treatment ended.
    • Improvements in sleep, anxiety and depressed mood
    • Vasomotor symptoms were less bothersome.
  3. As a result of this work, ear acupuncture is offered as a service to men experiencing side effects of treatment for prostate cancer, and is aimed at improving overall wellbeing.
  1. Improving wellbeing of people with cancer related lymphoedema
    Lymphoedema is chronic, incurable swelling that too frequently results from cancer treatment. This study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) investigated using acupuncture and moxibustion (a form of heat treatment used in traditional east Asian medicine) to improve overall wellbeing of breast cancer and head and neck cancer survivors with cancer treatment related lymphoedema. This demonstrated:
    • Acupuncture is a safe intervention for people with lymphoedema
    • Reductions in a range of troublesome symptoms including bodily pain
    • Improved vitality and self-management were also significant findings.
  2. A peer-reviewed paper reporting aspects of this study was runner up in the prestigious Scientific Article Prize competition awarded by the International Society of Complementary Medicine Research (ISCMR) 2017.

  1. Teaching chemotherapy patients to use self-administered moxibustion to reduce chemotherapy induced pancytopenia (CIP)
  2. Chemotherapy affects blood cell production and may cause CIP, conditions that may require dose reductions or treatment delays and so potentially limit the curative effects of chemotherapy.  Moxibustion may help to improve blood cell production.  This feasibility study, funded by the British Acupuncture Council, investigated whether it was possible to teach NHS chemotherapy patients to self-treat using moxibustion for the duration of their chemotherapy. The study demonstrated that this novel intervention was:

    • Well received by cancer patients and their health professionals
    • Demonstrated to be safe, as there were no reports of burning in over 1975 applications by 25 participants
    • Future studies can now investigate the effectiveness of moxibustion for reducing CIP.
  1. Acupuncture for colorectal cancer survivors
  2. This is a clinical observational study, made possible by philanthropic funding from the Milly Apthorp Charitable Trust and a partnership with the Colorectal Cancer Consultant at Barnet Hospital. It offers acupuncture treatment to colorectal cancer survivors with complex long term consequences of their treatment.  Patients and their oncologist report improved bowel control with reductions in pain, fear of recurrence and other symptoms all contributing to  better function and quality of life.

These studies, and others carried out by the SORT team, show that acupuncture has the potential for wide ranging and long term benefits for cancer survivors.  More than a magic bullet targeted at specific symptoms, acupuncture is a process that can lead to enduring improvements in overall wellbeing.   It has the potential to empower individuals and facilitate self-management, essential for living with chronic conditions.

For further information:

Peer reviewed published papers can be accessed on the Research pages of the Lynda Jackson Macmillan Centre website:

For further information contact Beverley de Valois PhD LicAc FBAcC : This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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