Research has found that people receiving acupuncture at the same time as chemotherapy have a better response to the treatment and face fewer — or less intense — side effects, including nausea. Studies show acupuncture is most effective when administered either at the same time or on the same day as chemotherapy.
“The evidence shows that it works really well to help with side effects, including digestive issues and neuropathy in the hands and feet,” says Sarwat Rumi, DACM, LAc.
Acupuncture also has been shown to help with depression and anxiety, including the “scanxiety” that comes before and after a patient has a follow-up scan to determine whether the cancer is in remission or progressing.
Dr. Rumi, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, has been affiliated with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center since 2018, and came on board recently as a full-time, in-house acupuncturist in Survivorship and Supportive Care.
“I will continue to do private sessions with patients in exam rooms, but what’s new is that I will be in the chemotherapy infusion center as well,” she says.
Tiny needles help mitigate nausea, pain
In her practice as an acupuncturist, Dr. Rumi will place up to 20 flexible, hair-fine, solid needles into a patient’s skin along a series of “acupoints.” The acupoints overlap with the body’s “channel system,” which “doesn’t directly correspond to any other system in the body, like the vascular system, nervous system or the digestive tract, but it does interface with all those systems,” Dr. Rumi explains. “The channel system – also called meridian system – comprises this whole network in the body. We find that many of the major acupuncture points along these channels correspond to major areas of vasculature, chains of muscle, or may be directly over nerves.”
For example, to treat a patient suffering from neuropathy in the hands (which may feel like tingling or numbness in the fingers), she might place acupuncture needles between the fingers, and using the channel system, she might also insert a needle at a point on the inner arm, which happens to be over the median nerve, or even on the elbow. For patients concerned about needles interfering with chemotherapy ports or other hardware, or those who have lymphedema and are advised against punctures in the affected area, Dr. Rumi says she will avoid those areas altogether. In many cases, she will avoid putting needles into the torso at all, preferring instead to work on the arms, legs, wrists and feet.
“We want to find a pattern or constellation of signs and symptoms that tells us the root cause,” she says. “Someone might come to me with hip pain and I might ask about their digestion, diet, and their response to the weather so I can understand why they have a particular kind of hip pain.
“I also do a physical exam; I’ll look at a person’s face, their complexion. I’ll take their pulse and I’ll look at their tongue.
“Most people do feel some relief during their first treatment, but not everyone. It’s best to have a course of treatment.”
Dr. Rumi thinks of acupuncture as a bridge between medical treatment and psychotherapy.
“It’s great to be able to help someone feel centered and grounded before they go into surgery and then to help them feel grounded, centered, and in less pain while recovering from that surgery,” she says. “We’re not replacing any other type of care, but we are doing our best to seamlessly integrate with other care.”
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“It lifts me every day”
She’s grateful for the opportunity to practice acupuncture at Roswell Park and to have the support of doctors and other experts. Even before her full-time practice opened, there was a long list of patients interested in acupuncture treatment.
“Expanding into a full-time service here is a great step forward for acupuncture and integrative medicine. Simply having an acupuncture program at Roswell Park is a wonderful validation that it can be helpful for patients’ conditions and symptoms at any point in their cancer journey,” Dr. Rumi says.
Not only does that make it convenient for patients who want her services, she adds, but developing a place within the center is inspirational.
“We know people are here because they are seriously ill, but the patients at Roswell Park are the most alive human beings I have come across. They know the value of each moment. That is so inspiring. It lifts me every day. It is a privilege to be a component of care for the patients here.
“This is a place of healing and life.”