Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and immunotherapy are just a few treatments cancer patients endure. Coupled with uncomfortable side effects such as nausea, fatigue, diarrhea and mouth sores, patients look for relief to make their treatments more bearable. The University of Colorado Hospital’s Center for Integrative Medicine is helping patients find the necessary relief.
Integrative medicine, or the combination of conventional, alternative and complementary medicine, is becoming more and more popular as people turn towards more natural ways to ease pain and discomfort before, during and after cancer treatments.
“It is important to realize that we are not a substitute for curative or conventional care,” says Lisa Corbin, MD, FACP, medical director of integrative medicine at University of Colorado Hospital. “It is not a substitute, it is a compliment.”
There are many types of integrative medicine available to patients at the Center of Integrative Medicine. Some of these include acupuncture, mind and body therapy, massage and chiropractic. All of the practices are performed by qualified individuals who work for the hospital.
“There are three goals that we have at the center for people who have cancer,” explains Corbin. “The first is tolerating the conventional treatment better, the second is helping with the side effects, and the third is directly acting against the cancer.”
One of the more popular types of integrative medicine that is practiced is acupuncture—a treatment that has been show to prevent side such as vomiting and nausea, says Corbin.
Cancer and acupuncture
When Bonnie Suter was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer on Oct. 13, 2011 she was given two years to live. The cancer that had started in her right breast eventually spread to her spine, liver, brain and right lung. The pain was unbearable.
“I had intense back pain, diarrhea, neck pain and digestion problems all throughout my treatments,” says Suter. “I could no longer do the things I wanted to do like play tennis and be outside.”
It was then that her doctor Virginia Borges, MD, MMSc, CU Cancer Center investigator, recommended that Suter look into integrative medicine and acupuncture to help ease the side effects.
“I was scared, but my doctor kept telling me to try it,” explains Suter. “Now I wish I would have gone in as soon as I was diagnosed!”
Suter, who has been going to the Center for Integrative Medicine for nearly six months, goes once a week for her acupuncture with Ban Wong, LA.c, PhD, Dipl. Ac. Hb.
“I have seen so many benefits from the acupuncture,” Suter says. “My neck and back pain are gone, my digestive issues have been resolved, even my dry eyes and congestion are treated during my sessions—I am blown away every time I go in.”
Today Suter is in remission and her tumor markers are normal. “It is because of the combination of Drs. Borges and Wong’s work that I am where I am today,” she says.
“I am able to do the things I love again.”
What Patients Can Expect
Before a patient begins the first session with their acupuncturist the practitioner will go over medical history, take a pulse and look at his or her tongue to diagnose the nature of the medical problem. In a softly lit room with relaxing music in the background, a patient will lie comfortably on a bed and the practitioner will tap hair-like, ultra-fine needles into the skin with or without sensations.
About 10 to 20 acupoints are chosen to stimulate the self-healing process and some patients may experience immediate relief of their symptoms. The needles are left on the patient for 15 to 30 minutes. Depending on the conditions, additional treatments are often recommended.
Some people are concerned that acupuncture is painful but the complete opposite is more likely to be true. “Receiving acupuncture is a very comfortable and peaceful experience,” says Wong. “Patients may just feel some pressure, tingling, burning or soreness when the needles are inserted, and most of the time they might not feel the insertion. Many patients go into a relaxed state or even fall asleep.”
Some patients may only need one or two sessions while others may continue sessions for months. “When a patient has an acute condition, two to three treatments per week are recommended,” says Wong. “Otherwise for chronic conditions, one treatment a week for three to six months is recommended.”
Nancy Nguyen, DAOM, LA.c, has seen many cancer patients come through the center. All are looking for ways to make treatment more bearable.
“I usually recommend that patients come in the day before or the day of their infusions,” says Nguyen. “We find that it is most effective to decrease the side-effects if the sessions are done then.”
While there are no major differences between acupuncture for patients with or without cancer, Nguyen says while blood cell count does need to be considered due to potential risk for infection.
“If the oncologist thinks that there is too much of a risk to do acupuncture during treatment we will of course respect that, however the risk of infection is so low that it is hardly an issue,” she says.
Not all insurance plans cover acupuncture at the center. “Some insurance companies cover acupuncture, but it depends on the plan that patients carry,” says Nguyen. “I think here in the clinic, we average about 5-10% of patients have insurance that covers acupuncture, so the vast majority of patients pay out of pocket.”
Because integrative medicine is one more expense that cancer patients often cannot afford, the Center has created a grant program that offers patients six free treatments. Hopefully, the grants will help more patients, like Suter, receive the help they need.
“I would recommend acupuncture to any cancer patient going through treatment,” says Suter. “I always say if you think positive and do not focus on the statistics your body will respond.”
Benefits of acupuncture specific to cancer patients:
- Diminished side-effects from cancer treatments
- Reduced fatigue
- Reduced inflammation
- Reduced insomnia
- Overall improved quality of life.
- Reduced pain
- Reduced levels of anxiety
- Reduced nerve problems
- Reduced vomiting
- Increased appetite
If you are interested in contacting the Integrative Medicine Center please call 720-848-1090 or visit their website for more information. Learn more about funding opportunities for cancer patients to take part in integrative medicine online or apply for the program now.