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Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture for Chemotherapy

Are you dreading chemotherapy?  Worried about chemo side effects, such as nausea and vomiting, fatigue, diarrhea or constipation, hair loss, and more?  Chemotherapy horror stories are easy to find on the internet, but don’t worry – there’s a lot that acupuncture during chemotherapy can help you with! Here’s a quick summary from our experience with other cancer patients:

Graphic of woman in a chair getting a chemotherapy infusion

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Nausea and Vomiting

Countless times in clinic, I’ve seen that acupuncture can relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Numerous research studies also back this up. According to Chinese Medicine, chemotherapy is particularly damaging to the digestive system (considered the “Stomach/Spleen meridians” in acupuncture). Depending what the condition of your digestive function was to begin with, the nausea may be very mild and manageable, or may be quite severe. It can also affect your appetite, making it difficult to eat regular healthy meals. We typically don’t give many herbs during chemotherapy (to avoid herb-drug interactions), but ginger is commonly used for nausea, and a more complex herbal formula may be needed between infusions, depending on your particular situation. Here’s some acupressure for nausea you can do yourself add between acupuncture visits (in and of itself, it may not be enough, but is a good add-on!)


Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is excellent for the fatigue that chemotherapy causes. Chemotherapy is a strong medicine that depletes the “Qi” (roughly translated as “energy”) of the body in addition to killing cancer cells. Gentle acupuncture and moxibustion (the burning of mugwort over acupuncture points) is excellent for boosting the Qi back up. Herbs are excellent too, but again we tend to use caution during chemotherapy itself. While you may not get to feeling 100% during chemo treatment, you should get some relief from the fatigue, some sounder sleep, and will bounce back more quickly after chemotherapy is over.

Diarrhea and Constipation

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help relieve diarrhea and/or constipation associated with chemotherapy. These are often side effects not only of the chemotherapy drugs, but of the anti-nausea medication that themselves may be constipating and require further use of a laxative. Acupuncture can help reduce your reliance on these drugs, and is an excellent complement to your chemotherapy self-care regime. In fact, recent studies at Yale University have shown that a classic Chinese herbal formula could not only help relieve irinotecan-induced diarrhea, but also had its own anti-cancer effects.

Peripheral Neuropathy and Pain

Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) can appear as numbness, tingling, pain or other strange sensations in your hands and feet. Another possible side effect is redness, burning or peeling in the feet and hands. Depending on the exact chemotherapy drug combination you’re on, this may be more or less likely to occur, and may be associated with cold or hot exposure. There may be a delayed effect and neuropathy may start after, and last well beyond, your last chemotherapy round. For others, the neuropathy may start during chemotherapy and is an important side effect to mention to your oncologist, as they may consider adjusting the dose to minimize nerve damage. Acupuncture is helpful to prevent CIPN as well as to minimize the severity of it. After chemotherapy is over, we can use a stronger combination of acupuncture and herbs to reduce the neuropathy, or sometimes eliminate it altogether. In addition to neuropathy, pain is a common side effect of cancer and its treatments. Acupuncture is an excellent natural, drug-free therapy for pain relief. Click here for a more detailed article about cancer pain treatment.

Hot Flashes

For some people, cancer or cancer treatment causes hot flashes. For some people, they are so severe that they disrupt your sleep or quality of life. Acupuncture is an excellent drug-free choice to minimize hot flashes whether they are from hormonal changes, menopause, cancer, or cancer treatment. Most people I work with find that after a series of acupuncture treatments, their hot flashes are down to a very minimal level, and rarely disturb their sleep. After chemotherapy is over, we can add herbs that further help with hot flash relief. Woman getting head massage

Sleep, Mood, Anxiety, and Depression

Facing cancer and chemotherapy can be very trying, to say the least. Fear, anxiety, depression and insomnia is incredibly common among people with cancer. I work with dozens of people every week whose main motivation for coming regularly is that acupuncture helps calm their mind and balance their mood. By soothing anxiety or lifting depression, by promoting sound sleep and improving your fatigue, your daily quality of life during chemotherapy is much improved. I also teach people various self-acupressure, breathing and meditation techniques that you can use at home, and have worked with many who were able to gradually reduce or eliminate their need to anti-anxiety or anti-depressive medications.

Recovery after chemotherapy

After a course of chemotherapy, people I work with benefit greatly from acupuncture and herbs to help them recover their energy, mood, sleep, digestive function, hair growth, and much more. To prevent cancer recurrence, it’s important to look at the major pillars of health – stress, digestion, sleep, emotions, detoxification, and getting pain free so that you can exercise regularly. From a Chinese medicine point of view specifically, we look at the state of your body’s own healthy Qi (roughly analogous to your immunity or resistance to disease), your “Damp/Phlegm” (sort of like your fluid metabolism), your level of Stagnation (if you have blockages in the circulation of your energy, your blood, etc.), and your level of Toxins (can be internal or external disease-causing factors, including but not limited to infections, exposures to pollutants, carcinogenic chemicals, and more). By regulating the above factors, we help you to minimize your risk of cancer recurrence from a Chinese Medicine viewpoint.

Want to know more?

Check out our other articles on how acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help support people with cancer and their loved ones. For our general practice website, click here.

Want some more support during cancer treatment?

For more information on how we can help you get through chemotherapy more easily, please call 416-890-7770 or click here and book your free 15 minute initial appointment online.  We have a location in Midtown Toronto and another one in Concord, Vaughan.



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