By Laurie Wertich
Anyone who has experienced a genuine hot flash—a wave of heat that spreads throughout the body—knows how overwhelming it can be. Uncomfortable and aggravating, they can occur day and night, often disrupting sleep and requiring a change of clothes or even bed sheets.Once associated only with women going through menopause, hot flashes have become a common side effect of cancer treatment; and while they may sound harmless to those who have never experienced them, they can have a drastic effect on quality of life.
Cancer Treatment and Hot Flashes
After she was diagnosed with stage IV
ovarian cancer, Bliss Isaacson underwent
surgery to remove her ovaries. As a result,
she was thrown into early menopause
complete with unbearable hot flashes.
“I had such bad night sweats every night
that sometimes I even had to change my
nightgown,” she explains. “It was wintertime
and I would wear tank tops and cardigans
and then find myself stripping off
the cardigan. It was unbearable.”
Unfortunately, Bliss’s experience is not
unique. The advent of innovative hormonal
therapies for some cancers, which
can remove or block hormones that stimulate
the cancer’s growth, has brought
exciting advances in cancer treatment
(see sidebar). On the flip side, these hormonal therapies come with a whole host
of side effects, including hot flashes.
Though hot flashes may seem like a
minor compromise for preventing cancer
growth, they can be quite uncomfortable—
and embarrassing. Furthermore,
hot flashes can affect sleep, resulting
in insomnia and further deteriorating
quality of life.
After suffering from hot flashes for several months, Bliss found relief through an unexpected avenue: acupuncture. “I was just open to trying it,” she recalls. “After only my second treatment, I noticed that
the hot flashes and the night sweats were diminishing.”
Bliss started with weekly acupuncture and continued to find relief from hot flashes. Now that her acupuncture sessions are spaced three weeks apart, she experiences the occasional hot flash during the day but no more night sweats.“It’s nothing like I had before, when my face would get red and I would be sweating,”she says. “Now I just get a little warm, and it passes.”
Acupuncture has been practiced for more than 4,000 years as a part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is based on the idea that vital energy known as qi (pronounced “chee”) flows through the body along 20 pathways referred to as meridians. When qi is blocked, the body is thrown out of balance and can’t function optimally. The goal of acupuncture is to remove blockages,thereby allowing qi to flow freely and relieving symptoms that were associated with the blocked qi.
“The body has a natural desire to be in a balanced state,”explains Gurneet Singh, ND, Lac, a licensed acupuncturist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia,Pennsylvania. “I think of acupuncture as a way to provide the body with subtle messages to help encourage and nudge the body back into balance. Acupuncture is designed to support and balance the body.”
Singh says that acupuncture can provide patients with significant relief from the side effects of cancer and its treatment,including hot flashes. “Acupuncture is an excellent method for managing hot flashes,” she says. “Even within the first few treatments, some patients have reported positive results. Their hot flashes have decreased in frequency and were less intense, and,for those patients, hot flashes did not affect their quality of life as much.”
Recent research supports the benefit of acupuncture for cancer patients experiencing hot flashes. One study among
women with hormone receptor–positive breast cancer showed that acupuncture was equivalent to Effexor® (venlafaxine),a medical therapy designed to reduce hot flashes; furthermore, the effects of the acupuncture lasted longer than those of the drug.1 Another study showed that acupuncture provided long-lasting relief to men experiencing hot flashes as a result of hormone treatment for prostate cancer.2
Singh explains that acupuncture has a cumulative effect, so patients typically experience better results as they continue with treatments. She says it is ideal to receive acupuncture for hot flashes every week, although patients will still experience the benefits of acupuncture even
with less frequent treatments. “I feel that the body can become attuned to the acupuncture So, even if we are unable to treat a patient regularly and frequently,it’s not as if the patient is starting right from the beginning at each treatment,”she explains. “We will be starting from where we left off from the last acupuncture treatment.”
What to Expect
Patients can be intimidated by the idea of acupuncture if they are not familiar with the modality and may be concerned about the needles. “The number one question that patients ask,” Singh says, “is‘Will it hurt?’”
Done properly, Singh says, the acupuncture treatment will not be uncomfortable.The needles are tiny—only slightly thicker than a strand of hair—and they are gently placed superficially in the surface of the skin, she explains.The flexible needles are delivered via a guide tube and a gentle tap. Then the patient rests on the treatment table while the needles do their work. “We want to make this experience relaxing from the moment a patient walks in the door until they leave,” Singh says.
Bliss has come to really enjoy each treatment session. “I love it. It’s such a relaxing, wonderful experience,” she says. “I hardly feel the needles going in at all. Once they’re in, I can’t even tell where they are. I just lie there and meditate.”
No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.
1. Walker EM, Rodriguez AI, Kohn B, et al. Acupuncture versus venlafaxine for the management of vasomotor symptoms in patients with hormone receptor–positive breast cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Journal ofClinical Oncology. 2010;28(4): 634-40.
2. Ashamalla H, Jiang ML, Guirguis A, Peluso F, Ashamalla M. Acupuncture for the alleviation of hot flashes in men treated with androgen ablation therapy.
International Journal of Radiation Oncology * Biology *Physics. 2011;79(5):1358-63.
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