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 will cause physical and emotional systemic dysfunction.
Furthermore, surgeries, chemotherapies, and radiotherapies are standard interventions for breast cancer patients. These interventions mostly focus on battling the breast cancer itself, but they further compromise the human body systemically. These complications manifest as side effects of the treatment and include the following:
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• Pain: the result of neuropathy, damaged tissues, or scar tissues
• Digestive dysfunction: nausea, vomiting, anorexia, diarrhea, 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 a slower thinking process
• 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
In an attempt to counteract these systemic side effects, some breast 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 the 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 and breast cancer
Acupuncture, Chinese herbal remedies, and other 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).
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 its 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 the breast cancer and other illnesses 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.
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.
An acupuncture treatment typically lasts about 30 minutes. A couple more 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 achiness, tingling, and numbness may occur as the needle touches chi.
After the treatment, patients may feel deeply relaxed, light, and 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 Taoinstitute.com