Acupuncture for cancer patients

Cancer is one of the major medical challenges of our time. A condition that can present in countless different ways, cancers are difficult to diagnose, treat, and prevent, and as such research into every possible method that can deal with aspects of the disease is an important part of modern medicine. In this article we look at cancers and how acupuncture has found its way into the management of the disease.

What are cancers?

Broadly speaking, cancer is a disease which involves the abnormal growth of cells in the body. Normal cell growth is tightly regulated by bodily signals which stipulate that cells only grow and replicate when necessary. This system is extremely responsive, and is affected by stimuli like injury for example.

When the signalling system responsible for regulating cell growth and division is disrupted, cells begin to grow uncontrollably. This leads to a number of distinct physiological problems that can, ultimately lead to serious disease, and in the most severe cases, death.

When cells grow uncontrollably they form a structure called a tumour or a neoplasm. Tumour’s start taking up important resources to keep growing in their uncontrolled fashion, and this affects the surrounding tissue and organ. This uncontrollable growth also starts disrupting the architecture of tissues and organs, which in many cases is essential to healthy function. The small intestine, for example, is lined by cells arranged in tiny hair like structures called villi which allow for the quick and efficient absorption of food. Cancers of the small intestine can involve a disruption of these structures, leaving the intestine less able to absorb the nutrition needed by the body.

Eventually as tumours continue to grow and develop, they can reach a point at which bits of the neoplasm break off and travel, via the blood stream, to other parts of the body where they form new tumours. This is a process called metastasis, and it is one of the major complications of cancer treatment.

What causes cancers?

Cancers are caused by changes in the genetic material possessed by every cell in the human body. This material is a code which acts as a set of instructions that defines every cell and its function, as well as how it responds to signals telling it to grow and divide. Other cells are encoded to release signals, forming a complex system that keeps us healthy, growing, and adaptable to changes in the environment.

These changes are called mutations, and mutations on certain genes (called oncogenes) are an important part of a process called ‘transformation’ which converts healthy cells into cancer or tumour cells.

Mutations can be caused by a number of factors, but in many cases they can also occur randomly. Our cells have a complex system that protects against mutations, which is why cancers aren’t constantly cropping up. The factors thought to contribute to the chances of cancer include:

  • A genetic predisposition to certain mutations – for example many breast cancers have a strong heritable component, which means that certain genes known to cause breast cancer are either present or vulnerable to mutations which can cause cancer.
  • Environmental exposure to certain chemicals (called carcinogens) can, over time, cause cancers to develop.
  • Exposure to certain types of radiation (including ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun) can cause mutations that lead to cancer.
  • Age – as we grow older our cells become less efficient in many of their functions, leaving them vulnerable to mutations that can lead to cancer. Many cancers are in fact diseases of old age, meaning that they are far more likely to affect older people.

What are the symptoms of cancer?

Because cancers can affect virtually any type of tissue or organ in the body, and because there are different types of cancers with different severities, there is no set of particular symptoms that can indicate a cancer. Some cancers can have symptoms as non-specific as a persistent cough or stomach ache, while others can have more dramatic signs which a doctor can pick up on.

Most cancers’ symptoms stem from the organ or tissue being affected, and that helps with the process of diagnosing the disease. For example, cancers of the lung will often present with persistent, blood speckled coughs, while cancers of the brain will often involve severe headaches and other neurological symptoms.

In many causes symptoms don’t present until a tumour has grown enough to start affecting the workings of an organ. Cancers vary extensively in how quickly they grow and affect the body.

How is cancer treated?

Cancer treatments have become as varied as the disease itself, particularly more recently as dozens of novel therapies are being developed and tries. Generally speaking however, cancers are dealt with through three courses of action, often combined to achieve the best effect possible. These are: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.

Surgical interventions aim to excise tumours completely, and are often supported with chemotherapy and radiotherapy to ensure that the tumour in question has been completely removed. Chemotherapy is a drug based approach to treating cancer, and the pharmaceutical agents used are usually extremely potent with strong and unpleasant side effects. Radiotherapy is the use of targeted radiation to eliminate cancers.

Cancer is also treated with an approach called ‘palliative care’, which is any medical action taken to alleviate symptoms and not directly address the underlying condition. Palliative care is important in cancer because of how severe the symptoms and side effects of treatment can be. This approach includes managing pain and nausea, both of which are areas in which acupuncture has had some success as a treatment.

How can cancer patients benefit from acupuncture?

The ancient Chinese art of acupuncture has proven to have a useful role in managing some of the complicated effects of cancer. The scientific evidence supporting acupuncture as an effective treatment remains inconclusive in many areas, however many cancer patients have reported that this method of treatment is extremely helpful when dealing with the nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy, as well as the anxiety and pain involved in cancer.

Cancer patients are often receiving a variety of treatments that can exact a toll on their bodies, and having access to an alternative therapy that doesn’t interact with other pharmaceutical agents can be quite useful.

The treatment itself is administered through fine, stainless steel needles passed into specific acupoints on the body. The mechanisms by which acupuncture works remain a subject of controversy and debate, however as more investigations are being performed we are closer to reaching firm conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the technique.

Other methods of acupuncture like electroacupuncture are employed in relieving some of the discomfort cancer patient’s experience.

It is important to remember that despite its apparent usefulness in treating the side effects of cancer therapies, acupuncture is not a viable treatment for cancer itself. This therapy should be used as a complement to other medical treatments, and should only be pursued with your doctor’s knowledge. Cancer is a complex illness with many different aspects, and your doctor needs to be fully aware of any alternative therapies you may be using.

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