East Meets West

Integrating traditional Chinese medicine may ease side effects.

BY LENA HUANG
PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER 08, 2008
As a law school librarian, Jenny Roquemore is accustomed to reading about different perspectives. So when she was diagnosed with HER2-positive, estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer, she explored not only conventional therapies, but also non-conventional outlets, and found herself drawn to one in particular—traditional Chinese medicine.

Roquemore had a lumpectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy. But during chemotherapy, she experienced pain and low energy, and remembered from her research that acupuncture might help. Her doctors consented, and after her chemotherapy was completed, she added Chinese herbs to help combat other side effects.

Roquemore admits she doesn’t know if adding traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, had any effect on her cancer, but she does know it helped her feel balanced during and after the chaos of cancer. “Western and Chinese medicines are not substitutes for each other; they are complementary. I feel the acupuncture and herbs protected me, helped preserve my health, and kept me on the right track,” says Roquemore, 59, from Austin, Texas, adding that her cancer is in remission.

Roquemore is not alone in turning to integrative treatments such as TCM. The American Cancer Society estimates up to 50 percent of cancer patients use some type of integrative (also referred to as complementary) therapy, and more than $34 billion is spent each year on these treatments. As these therapies become more popular, more research is being funded to determine what they actually do in the body and how they may help combat the side effects of cancer treatment. 

TCM is a system of medical diagnosis and treatment that has evolved over the past 3,000 years into a set of practices that are used to treat ailments and maintain health. These practices include herbal medicine, acupuncture, and other therapies.

Cancer is viewed differently by TCM physicians than by Western doctors partly because TCM is based on the Daoist belief that everything in the universe is interconnected.

TCM views the human body as an energy system with chi being the “energy” or “life force.” Chi flows through invisible channels in the body called meridians, and TCM therapies, such as acupuncture, are used to unblock the chi flow in the meridians. Blockages are believed to be caused by myriad sources both inside and outside the body, such as dietary habits, genetics, past diseases, exercise, work, environment, lifestyle, and sexual activity.

View Illustration: Pressure PointsI think there is a better understanding now that many of the treatments that the Chinese have been using for hundreds, if not thousands, of years may, in fact, be useful in the battle against cancer. 

With more patients turning to integrative therapies, research in that area is increasing. “I think there is a better understanding now that many of the treatments that the Chinese have been using for hundreds, if not thousands, of years may, in fact, be useful in the battle against cancer,” says Cohen, who is the principal investigator for a $2.8 million grant received by M.D. Anderson from the National Cancer Institute to study TCM and cancer with Fudan University Cancer Hospital in Shanghai, China.

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