Acupuncture Can Aid in the Care of Breast Cancer

Acupuncture is thousands of years old, and is one of the five pillars of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). (Image: Vivian Chen via flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)
Acupuncture is thousands of years old, and is one of the five pillars of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). (Image: Vivian Chen via flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Patients diagnosed with breast cancer often suffer from stress generated by the diagnostic procedures. They face decisions about treatment options and the impact the diagnosis will have on their professional and personal lives. The stress can generate multiple biological changes that may cause physical and emotional systemic dysfunction.

Furthermore, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy are standard intervention for these patients. These interventions mostly focus on battling the cancer itself, but they further compromise the human body systemically. These complications manifest as side effects of treatment and include the following:

• Pain: the result of neuropathy, damaged tissues, or scar tissues.
• Digestive dysfunction: nausea, vomiting, anorexia, diarrhoea, or constipation.
• Endocrinological dysfunctions: hair loss, hot flashes, cold extremities, and low libido.
• Mental and cognitive dysfunctions: anxiety, depression, insomnia, poor memory and concentration, and slower thinking processes.
• Hematological dysfunction: reduced blood counts, reduced lymphocytes.
• Skeletal-muscular system: muscle pain, joint pain.
• Nervous system: neuropathy, immunological dysfunction, and symptoms such as dry mouth.

(Image: Phil and Pam Gradwell via flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Patient receiving chemotherapy. (Image: Phil and Pam Gradwell via flickr / CC BY 2.0)

In an attempt to counteract these systemic side effects, some cancer patients use modalities that are considered complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). They work to reduce the side effects listed above because many of these modalities focus on enhancing the function of the whole system. They often address both physical and emotional issues.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a perfect example of a type of CAM. Acupuncture, moxibustion, Chinese herbal therapies, Tui Na, Chi Gong (also called Qigong, exercises of chi, and meditation), and dietary therapy are all therapeutic tools of traditional Chinese medicine. Among these tools, acupuncture is most widely used in the treatment of cancer patients in the West, while Chinese herbal remedies are often used in China today.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Acupuncture, Chinese herbal remedies, and other Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment tools are only effective if the patient’s chi abnormalities are thoroughly evaluated by utilizing all the theories of TCM: yin and yang, “wu xing” (also called the Five Elements), chi, blood, essence, fluid, meridians, organs, and man and nature.

The treatment plan should include dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, and exercises to strengthen chi, along with daily acupuncture treatments and daily intake of individually formulated herbs (which will change as the patient’s chi changes).

(Image: Spot Us via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

When combining Traditional Chinese Medicine with modern medicine, it can have greater benefits for your health. (Image: Spot Us via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the West, people generally do not get the amount of TCM treatment traditionally required to be effective. People rarely combine conventional treatment with Chinese herbal remedies due to the concern oncologists have about a negative interaction with chemotherapy.

The TCM treatment for people with breast cancer can be used for multiple purposes; first, to support the body’s physical and mental functions during the conventional therapies; secondly, to reduce the adverse effects of conventional therapies; and thirdly, to maintain health and prevent recurrence of cancer and other illness in the future.


Acupuncture is a procedure used to restore the balance of chi. It involves inserting fine, sterile needles into points on the surface of the body. There are roughly 360 points connected with 12 major meridian systems and 8 extra meridians.

Before inserting the needles, the acupuncturist has to diagnose the patient based on the TCM method. The acupuncturist must understand the biomedical and structural issues prior to choosing a combination of points. For example, if there is excessive heat in the system, the practitioner may want to pick a point that is connected with cold energy to increase it, or a point that is connected with heat energy to reduce it.

In addition to strategically choosing a combination of points, the practitioner must also choose how to insert and manipulate the needles. This is a crucial detail needed to achieve the intended intervention.

17th C Chinese acupuncture chart, lung channel of hand taiyin. (Image: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images BY 4.0) 17th century Chinese woodblock illustration showing the course of the lung channel of hand taiyin, with the acu-moxa locations marked and labelled. The lung channel of hand taiyin is one of the Twelve Channels. It originates at the zhongfu (Middle Palace) point and terminates at the shaoshang (Lesser Shang) points. There are approximately 22 acupoints on this channel, including zhongfu (Middle Palace), yunmen (Cloud Portal), tianfu (Palace of Heaven), xiabai (Clasping the White), chize (Foot Marsh), kongzui (Utmost Opening), lieque (Break in the Sequence), jingqu (Channel Ditch), taiyuan (Great Abyss), yuji (Fish Border) and shaoshang (Lesser Shang). These points are mainly used in the treatment of pulmonary complaints such as coughs and asthma, soreness and inflammation of the throat, cold pain in the shoulders and back and pain in the inner and frontal parts of the hand and arm. See also Image L0037869. Woodcut Library of Zhongguo zhongyi yanjiu yuan (China Academy for Traditional Chinese Medicine) Lei jing tu yi (Illustrated Supplement to the Classified Canon) Zhang Jiebin Published: 1621-1627 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

17th century Chinese woodblock illustration showing the course of the lung channel of hand taiyin, with the acu-moxa locations marked and labelled. (Image: Wikipedia via Wellcome Library, London, Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)

Let’s say the practitioner wants to enhance the chi circulation in the patient’s meridian. The patient must inhale when the needle is inserted. The needle should be inserted in the direction of the chi flow, rotated clockwise, and left at a deeper level.

Acupuncture treatment typically lasts about 30 minutes. A couple further manual manipulations may be conducted during the session. Patients may experience discomfort and mild pain as the needle is inserted. Then, sensations — like pressure, dull aching, tingling, and numbness — may occur as the needle touches chi.

After the treatment, patients may feel deeply relaxed, light, and either energized or tired. Pain may be reduced right away, but sometimes it increases before it is reduced. Patients should expect the treatment to last at least 30 sessions before the symptoms are gone. TCM is not a quick-fix treatment.

Dr. Yang is a board-certified psychiatrist, and is a fourth-generation doctor of Chinese medicine. His website is

Follow us on Twitter or Subscribe to our weekly email

Seven Chinese Treatments to Help You Look and Feel Younger
Here's a Quick and Easy Way to Cure Your Cough