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Image / Editorial

Acupuncture and Cancer

13th Oct 2014

If you or someone you know has been recently diagnosed with cancer, or you find yourself facing the dreaded chemo, we’re taking a look at the ways in which acupuncture can really help you along as an alternative, holistic treatment.

Here, acupuncturist Hannah O’Connell explains how it all works.

In short, Acupuncture supports Vital qi (energy) which enhances the immune system, allowing the body to withstand disease.?It regulates Yin and Yang and factors in the internal and external elements and emotional health while helping to prevent, correct or reduce iatrogenic pain due to surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

In my private practice and in my clinic at ARC Cancer support centre, I would see patients at various stages of treatment from diagnosis right through to recovery, treating a variety of symptoms and conditions associated with cancer and the side effects of various treatments.


A cancer diagnosis can send you into a state of shock and create anxiety that would previously never have been present. It can cause sleepless nights, mental exhaustion and appetite loss, none of which are the best start to cancer treatment. Acupuncture can help here by calming the mind, restoring sleep and appetite and boosting energy, creating a more balanced state from which to begin treatment.


Like any surgery, you can be left inflamed and in pain. In acupuncture terms, pain is seen as an interruption of qi, blood or even phlegm in the channels or meridians. In many cases this pain is quite significant and long lasting, causing sleep disturbance and fatigue. Acupuncture is a very effective treatment for managing the pain that surgery, tumors, inflammation, chemotherapy and radiation cause. Research shows, the use of acupuncture activates the spinal chord, midbrain and the hypothalamic-pituitary centres, activating the release of endorphins, enkephalins, monoamines and cortisol to block the pain messages therefore inducing an analgesic effect. Unlike the pain medications often prescribed, that can cause nausea, constipation and fatigue in the patient, acupuncture is side effect free.

Chemotherapy & Radiotherapy

Acupuncture is known to be very effective in relieving the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy treatment, in fact it’s been well documented in many studies.

Again, it’s also very valuable in terms of the exhaustion and fatigue associated with chemo and radiotherapy. Fatigue is the most common symptom experienced by patients with cancer, which is also one of the most common adverse effects that occur during and after cancer treatment. Cancer treatment-related fatigue generally improves after treatment ends, but some degree of fatigue may persist for months or even years. Fatigue affects multiple aspects of life? physical, mental, and emotional – and has a significant negative impact on patients? physical functioning and overall quality of life. In TCM terms, any chronic disease process depletes the energy level in the organism. Such depletion can be relieved, at least temporarily, by tonification, a process of imparting energy into the system via acupuncture. This is deemed necessary for more durable, successful pain control. It can also add to the patients’ sense of well being and decrease the malaise associated with any chronic disease, especially cancer.

Hormone therapy

Breast cancer patients and prostate cancer patients suffer while undergoing hormonal treatment. Hot flashes can disrupt sleep, cause distress and discomfort and be quite overwhelming. Studies suggest that acupuncture may be as effective as Effexor (an anti depressant used as a treatment for hot flashes) at reducing the frequency of hot flashes in breast cancer patients treated with hormonal therapy, minus the side effects. In prostate cancer patients, a study using acupuncture showed results of reduction in symptoms of 89.2% after 6 weeks of treatment.


The war is over and you’re now cancer-free, business as usual, right? Wrong. Not only has the cancer taken its toll on the body’s processes but the treatment has really knocked it for six. You may feel exhausted and emotionally dazed after the whole ordeal. At this point regardless of whether you’ve had no acupuncture or have been attending regularly, acupuncture can be invaluable now at getting you back on track to enjoying life! It will boost energy, promote smooth flow of emotions, aid sleep and create the well deserved sense of well being after what may have been a lengthy and trying experience.

One thing I am often asked in clinic is ?Should I wait until after my radiotherapy/chemotherapy to begin acupuncture?? Absolutely not, acupuncture is entirely safe throughout your treatment, it does not interfere with the medications in any way. It simply supports you physically and mentally throughout the process, shortening recovery time so you can feel like you again.

When considering acupuncture, always check the Acupuncture Council of Ireland website at for a fully trained and registered acupuncturist in your area.

Hannah O’Connell @hocacupuncture

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