My mom became a breast cancer survivor 17 years ago. Knowing that both of her maternal grandmothers fought the disease and after watching her own mother battle with breast cancer, my mom decided to do a prophylactic mastectomy (long before Angelina Jolie). The doctors were hesitant, and wanted to do a mammogram, which led to a biopsy and the discovery of very early stage breast cancer. She was extremely lucky, as was our entire family because my mom is an incredible person who shares so much love and fun and food with all those around her! I am incredibly grateful for her foresight and courage and know not everyone is as fortunate. Because of my personal experience, the opportunity to support others who are going through cancer treatment as a healthcare practitioner is particularly meaningful.
During my doctoral program which focused on integrative care, I shadowed Dr. David Andorsky, an oncologist at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Institute in Boulder, CO. I learned a great deal about the latest developments in cancer treatment, and more about the process people with cancer go through. I was able to observe initial consultations with an oncologist to see how treatment options are explained and determined. Dr. Andorsky offers patient centered care and collaborates in an empowering way with his patients. He presents the different paths available and together with his patients, determines what will work most for the patient and their family. Some of the questions he asks support how the patients engage with the wholeness of their life, and not just with their diagnosis. For example, when a woman in her forties with two children discovers she has cancer, will she have to continue working? Would she prefer to have her chemo on a Monday so she’s able to be available for her children on the weekend, or on a Friday so she can rest over the weekend and get back to work come Monday or Tuesday? I was encouraged and inspired by Dr. Andorsky’s compassion and empathy as well as his resourcefulness, always considering additional options and accommodating family plans and needs. I also watched follow-up consultations for people undergoing treatment, some with better prognosis than others, and gained a sense of what the journey with cancer is like under differing circumstances.
Most people don’t think of acupuncture as their first line of defense in treating cancer, and indeed they shouldn’t.
Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and now immunotherapy are generally the first line of defense and appropriately so, they save lives. While these treatments in many cases are very effective, they can be hard on the body and often involve side effects like pain and neuropathy or weakness, fatigue, and nausea. Anything that can support a person and their body as they go through and recover from these treatments is welcome. Acupuncture happens to be just that, a treatment that supports the body and mind, reduces side effects from cancer treatment, and is particularly valuable because it doesn’t interfere with the cancer-killing treatments.
In fact the National Cancer Institute recently published a report on “Acupuncture for Symptom Management in Oncology” which, citing numerous studies, deemed acupuncture both safe and effective for treating
Nausea and Vomitting
Xerostemia (dry mouth)
I’ve had the honor of supporting a number of people on their journeys with cancer, both in a specialty oncology clinical internship while in school and currently in private practice. In certain ways, treatments for cancer patients are no different from those with any other disease - I identify the underlying pattern of disharmony and treat it accordingly, paying extra attention to symptomatic relief.
I also find the cancer journey can be fertile ground for growth and transformation. An encounter with a situation in life that calls on us to reflect on our mortality is an opportunity to sit with and explore questions around who we are, how we’re living, and what ways we want to contribute to our beautiful world - it’s a heartseed. The calm and quiet resting space that acupuncture provides can create both support with the unwanted side effects and shifts in perspective around the disease and diagnosis. Some of the most rewarding moments seem to be those where in the midst of relief from suffering, there is a glimpse into the ineffable mystery of life and a renewal of the connection to living.
Here it’s worth mentioning that caring for a loved one who is working to reclaim their health and overcome cancer is its own stressful and challenging endeavor. There may be some hesitation around getting support as a caregiver (“Who am I to get a treatment/therapy? I’m not the one with cancer.”). However ensuring that you are resourced as you care for others is essential to being able to truly serve. It’s also worth noting that mindfulness practices can support everyone in managing the stresses and challenges of fighting cancer.
I am grateful to have been called into a vocation of service and support. I believe the power to transform pain and suffering is universal and yet, ast times, we need each other to awaken it.
If you or a loved one are seeking support for your journey with cancer, schedule a free consultation to explore how acupuncture can help you.