A 2008 American study, which appeared in the September issue of The International Journal of Radiation Oncology, examined the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating women coping with the side effects of conventional breast cancer medicine. Eleanor Walker, M.D., a radiation oncologist at the Henry Ford Hospital Department of Radiation Oncology in Detroit, led a team of researchers to compare acupuncture treatment with the common anti-estrogen treatment used to control breast cancer therapy side effects. The side effects, such as hot flashes and depression, affect about 80% of women treated for breast cancer and are usually treated by the pharmaceutical anti-depressant venlafaxine (Effexor). Many breast cancer patients refuse venlafaxine because of its own set of negative side effects.
The clinical trial, titled “Acupuncture for the Treatment of Vasomotor Symptoms in Breast Cancer Patients Receiving Hormone Suppression Treatment,” compared acupuncture treatment to venlafixine therapy for 12 weeks. The trial was randomized, which means that the patients were randomly placed into either treatment group. This ensured that both known and unknown confounding factors were evenly distributed between groups. Randomization is a common scientific technique for increasing the reliability of experimental results.
Dr. Walker’s study involved 47 patients who received the common breast cancer treatment of Tamoxifen or Arimidex and as a result had at least 14 hot flashes per week as well as excessive sweating, night sweats and depression. The 47 women were randomly divided into an acupuncture group (24 patients) and a venlafaxine group (23 patients). The patients were carefully monitored before, during and after the 12 week period.
Both of the groups showed significant improvement in the adverse effects of breast cancertreatment. The study reported “that acupuncture is at least as effective as venlafaxine in reducing vasomotor and other symptoms associated with anti-estrogen hormonal treatment of breast cancer.”
Although the main symptoms were decreased relatively equally among the two groups, the venlafaxine group reported a host of negative side effects such as nausea, dry mouth, headache, insomnia, dizziness, double vision, increased blood pressure, constipation, fatigue, anxiety, feeling ”spaced out,” and body spasms at night.
Patients from the acupuncture group experienced side effects as well, however they were positive in nature. The acupuncture-treated group experienced increased energy, clarity of thought, sexual desire, and an increased sense of well-being compared to before the treatment. After the 12 week trial was complete, the reduction in hot flashes lasted longer for the acupuncture patients than for the venlafaxine group.
In other words, although both conventional and acupuncture treatments decreased the negative effects of breast cancer medicine significantly, conventional treatment produced negative sides effects while acupuncture treatment provided additional benefits.
“Our study shows that physicians and patients have an additional therapy for something that affects the majority of breast cancer survivors and actually has benefits, as opposed to more side effects,” commented Eleanor Walker, M.D. “The effect is more durable than a drug commonly used to treat these vasomotor symptoms and, ultimately, is more cost-effective for insurance companies.”
“The results of this study suggest that adding acupuncture to breast cancer treatment regimens may establish an integrative approach that is more effective in managing symptoms due to treatment with fewer side effects than conventional pharmacotherapy treatment,” concluded the study.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation
This study was funded by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, one of the world’s largest not-for-profit organizations for the advancement of breast cancer activism. In 2008, the Dallas-based organization celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Komen Race for the Cure, the largest series of 5K runs/fitness walks in the world, with well over 1 million participants since 2005. The Komen Race for the Cure Series raises significant funds and awareness for the fight against breast cancer, celebrates breast cancer survivorship, and honors those who have lost their battle with the disease.