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Acupuncture and the Cancer Journey

Author: Jill Ellen Smith 6 October 2010 No Comment

“It’s cancer,” is probably the gravest and most frightening feedback anyone will ever receive from her or her physician. What woman doesn’t carry with them the fear that they may one day have to deal with breast cancer? As my patients have reported to me, it’s as if their personal world has tilted on its axis…permanently. According to recent statistics:

  • Breast cancer incidence in women in the United States is 1 in 8. The chance of dying from breast cancer is about 1 in 35. (American Cancer Society).
  • In 2009, an estimated 192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with an estimated 40,170 deaths. (American Cancer Society).


I will approach this discussion from a purely holistic standpoint (body/mind/spirit), and  reach out to those women who have been given a breast cancer diagnosis and are now faced with the myriad of Western medical advances to treat and hopefully cure their illness. A woman is going to be faced with multiple challenges as she undergoes the treatment process to fight cancer. From chemotherapy to radiation therapy to surgery and possibly a mastectomy and reconstruction; she can’t help but be overwhelmed with the looming issues facing her. Acupuncture treatment may be able to enhance your response to and help manage your reactions to Western cancer treatments. Let me elaborate.

Western physical interventions are destructive to both the cancer cells and to the body that houses these renegade cells. As a result, the side effects can be fairly global. Women will complain of hair loss, dry mouth, nausea, muscle wasting, loss of appetite, neuropathies, depression, insomnia, exhaustion, and much more. My intentions with treatments are to minimize and possibly alleviate side effects by buttressing the frame and foundation of my patient’s body to withstand and tolerate the destructive path of the chemotherapy as much as possible.

In Chinese medicine, that would mean supporting them on an “organ” level. (In Chinese medicine, we speak about meridians with organ names.) I focus a lot on the liver and kidney when treating my patients. These organs (and meridians) do a lot of the detoxification and processing of the chemicals used in cancer treatment.

Ultimately I will treat all the organs (meridians/officials) of the body. Building blood and qi (pronounced chi, which is equated to “energy”) will help my patients’ bodies in resisting infections and secondary complications. I also do frequent gentle clearing treatments. This process helps support one’s own detoxing organs so they do not become overburdened and overwhelmed.

On the physical realm, I coach my patients on optimizing their nutritional status. With appetite loss the antioxidant support from good nutrition is greatly diminished. Good nutrition and antioxidant support is critical in assisting the body to manage the free radical damage that is going on internally.

On an emotional level, each woman enters the cancer journey at a different place. Depending on her own level of coping skills, family issues, and personal life challenges, each woman brings different emotional challenges to the treatment process. I strive to create an environment of support and non-judgment where a woman can allow herself to be heard. The partnership created in this environment can become a major source of strength and support.

 I am presently partnering a 40-year-old woman named Karen through this journey. She has been diagnosed with Stage 2, Grade 3 breast cancer. She is Herseptin2 positive, which is a very aggressive cancer. She’s had a bilateral mastectomy and has now completed her course of chemotherapy. She is about to begin her radiation treatment. Her breast implants and saline enlargement are nearly complete at this juncture. Together we’ve laughed and cried. Karen experienced minimal nausea and no vomiting. She has only caught one cold in the last nine months. Although she has lost her hair, she has not lost her spirit. She struggles with family challenges that have arisen both due to and in spite of her present physical illness. Acupuncture points chosen to support her spirit and mood have helped her to stay the course without despair.

Bridging the East with the West during your cancer journey is a gift you can give to yourself that can create the endurance you need to get through your treatments.

Additional posts by Jill Ellen Smith