Women undergoing treatment for breast cancer often experience sleep disturbances from hot flashes. While common medications for these symptoms come with side effects, new research shows that acupuncture may be an effective way to manage the sudden, short surges in body temperature and, in turn, improve sleep, according to a statement published
by Jun Mao, chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Hot flashes are a very common side effect for women with cancer, and can be induced by premature menopause due to either the surgical removal of the ovaries or by chemotherapy. Many cancer drugs that affect the hormones, such as tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, can make hot flashes worse or more persistent. Existing drug approaches to treat hot flashes, while effective, can have some bothersome side effects, including weight gain and hormone imbalances. Mao’s research found that electro acupuncture, a type of acupuncture that uses tiny needles gently activated by an electric current, could help reduce the symptoms.
The studies compared electro-acupuncture treatment techniques with gabapentin, a drug known to be effective for hot flashes in people with cancer. Mao found that the acupuncture produced better sleep quality than pharmaceutical interventions, and also produced better results in sleep latency and sleep efficiency. While still preliminary, data results suggest that women with breast cancer may have another tool to help them manage hot flashes and resulting sleep disturbances.
Memorial Sloan Kettering only offers electo-acupuncture, so Mao is not sure if regular acupuncture would have the same effect. The electro-acupuncture technique is not solely putting needles in the skin. Instead, some of the needles are paired with electrodes that stimulate a current, providing a sensation akin to what patients describe as a gentle tapping of the skin.
Science has shown that electro-acupuncture can make the brain release endorphins and influence norepinephrine, a type of neurotransmitter that regulates body temperature, says Mao. Existing studies suggest that acupuncture can be effective in reducing hot flashes, but often the number of people studied was very small and the design of the study was problematic. Mao set out to create his own study, looking at a larger number of breast cancer survivors and selecting an effective comparator. The results are still preliminary, however, and Mao plans to do a larger trial with long-term follow-up to understand the effects of acupuncture versus conventional therapies, specifically the long-term durability of the treatment.Other holistic breast cancer treatments
Integrating holistic activities with evidence-based treatments for breast cancer is becoming more commonplace among providers. Daleela Dodge, MD, a breast surgeon at Penn State Hershey Breast Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, encourages her patients to integrate yoga, meditation, and journaling with more traditional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. She repeatedly sees how diet, exercise, a strong support system, mindfulness, and therapy can aid in recovery and remission from breast cancer, according to an interview published in the Knowledge Science Report
Integrative medicine has become an important way to keep traditional treatments from leaving patients with psychological and physical impairments. With a focus on health and wellness, it can help restore a better quality of life. Although the medical community has begun to acknowledge that patients can benefit from non-traditional therapies, Dodge says the offerings are not robust, and doctors are expected to follow exact protocols when it comes to treatment. “We aren’t judged based on patient survival,” she says. “We are paid for episodic, acute care.”
Providers aren’t always focused on figuring out how to get a patient back on their feet once they have been debilitated, says Dodge, mostly because they are bombarded with reimbursement issues and other concerns. Integrative medicine gives patients a voice in their health and allows them to actively participate in relieving symptoms and side effects of treatment, which can be empowering for breast cancer patients.
Dodge tries to help patients “get out of their minds” and cope with unhappiness and stress while they are pursuing traditional cancer treatment. The focus, she says, is taking care of the whole person. She suggests counseling, journaling, art, yoga, acupuncture, and meditation for stress reduction, and advices patients to take care of themselves physically by exercising regularly, taking part in physical therapy after treatments, eating healthy, and limiting alcohol consumption.
“Taking care of the whole person remains extremely important,” Dodge said. “I believe it is key to being able to move on [after cancer] and have a fulfilling happy life.”