Prior to being diagnosed with cancer, I had only tried acupuncture a few times. Most notably, when I was pregnant with my second child and had the pleasure of experiencing migraines on top of morning sickness. Because I was pregnant, I was afraid to take drugs (even Tylenol, which is completely fine, by the way), so I tried acupuncture as an alternative and it seemed to work. After two sessions, my migraines were gone and never came back.
But I, ever the skeptic, applied some logic: I received acupuncture twice at weeks sixteen and seventeen of my pregnancy, when one hits week eighteen of her pregnancy, the surge of hormones experienced in the first trimester plateau. That could have also been the reason my headaches went away.
Seven years later I found myself in another position where I didn’t want to put drugs—or, I should say, any more drugs—into my body. I was undergoing chemo and was being “drugged” every two weeks. I was handed several bottles of pills to alleviate the side effects of my ACT chemotherapy and I didn’t really want to add more toxicity to the already very toxic environment my chemo “cocktail” was creating inside of me. That’s when my oncologist told me about one of her colleagues, Dr. Ting Bao, the Director of Integrative Breast Oncology Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Not only is Dr. Bao a medical breast oncologist, she is also a doctor of Chinese medicine, spearheading clinical trials to gauge the efficacy of treating issues like nerve pain and musculoskeletal pain with acupuncture in individuals undergoing cancer treatment.
Dr. Bao’s approach is to use integrative therapies—acupuncture, massage, diet, exercise—to help improve a patient’s quality of life.
The day before each of my chemotherapy infusions, I would see Dr. Boa for acupuncture to preemptively help alleviate any nausea I would experience. Dr. Bao was a gift during treatment. While she inserted needles the size of a hair into various trigger points in my body, she educated me about what chemo was doing to my cells and why eating antioxidant rich foods and drinking things like green tea, all which are great at preventing cancer, is not recommended during chemotherapy.
Below is a short Q&A with Dr. Bao explaining a few whys and hows:
EH: Why are antioxidant foods and drinks not recommended during chemotherapy?
TB: Since chemotherapy works through generating oxidated stress on cancer cells, antioxidants may neutralize this effect and reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
EH: How does acupuncture work?
TB: Research has shown that acupuncture works in many ways, one is through neurohormonal pathways. Once the acupuncture needles are inserted and manipulated, they stimulate the nearby nerve fibers, which then send signals to the brain and release neurohormones such as beta endorphin, reducing symptoms such as pain. Studies also show that acupuncture works by reducing inflammation via lowering pro-inflammatory cytokines [cytokines are substances secreted by certain cells of the immune system and have an effect on other cells], such as IL6 and TNF-alpha. Other studies showed that acupuncture works by modulating brain structure and function.
EH: What are the issues you most commonly treat during chemotherapy?
TB: I most often treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, and pain.
EH: Any other integrative tips you might offer those undergoing treatment? (Specifically during chemo?)TB: I often recommend my patients to learn some mind-body approaches such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga to help them improve their mental wellbeing. I also strongly recommend that they exercise as much as they can during chemotherapy to improve their physical wellbeing. They are welcome to try several other integrative medicine approaches during chemotherapy such as music therapy, which has been shown to reduce anxiety, and journaling, which has been shown to help reduce cancer-related symptoms. I also recommend that they talk with dietitians or integrative medicine physicians about appropriate diet during chemotherapy. In addition, I recommend that they try our Integrative Medicine at Home program of virtual exercise and mind-body classes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as well as the cook for your life website to help improve their wellbeing during and after chemotherapy.