Symptoms from cancer treatment can greatly impact quality of life for breast cancer patients. Even when drugs can control cancer, they can also cause pain, fatigue, hot flashes and other symptoms that interfere with daily life. These symptoms can affect both physical and mental health and interfere with work and daily activities. Some treatments are given for a long time. People with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer may stay on hormone therapy for up to 10 years. This is a long time to live with a lower quality of life. (More information can be found in our XRAY review on how breast cancer patients experience hormone therapy.)
Some people stop taking their medication because of their side effects. In some cases, the drugs used to manage side effects cause other symptoms. And they are often costly. (More information can be found in our XRAY review on the cost of medication for the treatment of side effects). Many breast cancer survivors benefit from non-medicinal approaches, such as acupuncture, for symptom management.
Acupuncture is a technique from traditional Chinese medicine that considers the whole body. In an acupuncture treatment, needles are inserted in key locations around the body sometimes with electrical stimulation. Acupuncture use in the United States is increasing. More than 60 percent of National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers offer acupuncture. While acupuncture is generally safe, it can cause mild reactions, including pain, bruising, swelling, skin infection, hematoma, headache or menstrual bleeding.
A recent meta-analysis looked at usefulness of acupuncture in 26 prior studies. Multiple studies found that acupuncture is a safe and effective strategy to manage certain symptoms. However, they also called for more research. The most compelling data was that acupuncture reduced symptoms of fatigue, hot flashes and pain in breast cancer patients. Based on these results, the authors recommend incorporating acupuncture into clinical practice.