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Advocating for acupuncture in the fight against cancer

Ancient Chinese needle therapy has been found effective for treating nausea, other symptoms


by:  JOSH KULLA - Acupuncture can be used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with traditional cancer treatment. As shown here, the wrist is one of the most commonly used acupuncture pressure points.There’s a way forward for cancer patients struggling with the side effects of traditional radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

And it’s been around for a long time.

“Since 1997, there’s been recognition that acupuncture can be used to treat nausea and vomiting,” said PK Melethil, a Wilsonville acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine. “And when you’re treating cancer, one of the biggest things you’re fighting is that the treatment itself puts you down.”

Yes, the ancient practice of using small needles to penetrate the skin at certain points on the body has been found by many to have clear palliative effects for many different ailments. In its classical form it is a significant component of traditional Chinese medicine.

And since 1997 the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institutes of Health, one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, has officially vouched for its effectiveness when it comes to treating nausea and other side effects of radiation and chemotherapy.

“There is clear evidence,” the NIH consensus statement states, “that needle acupuncture treatment is effective for postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting, nausea of pregnancy and postoperative dental pain.”

The 12-member panel that authored the consensus statement also emphasized there are a number of other pain-related conditions for which acupuncture may be effective in relieving pain, but for which there is less convincing scientific data. These include addiction, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia (general muscle pain), low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma.

“We need more high-quality research to validate what appears to be useful for the millions of Americans that have used acupuncture in this country,” said panel chairman Dr. David J. Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “The challenge in studying acupuncture is to integrate the theory of Chinese medicine into the conventional Western biomedical research model and into the conventional health care arena.”

Melethil said that challenge remains today.

Despite scientific research demonstrating the efficacy of acupuncture in certain situations, doubts remain in the medical community at large. At the same time, he added, things are slowly changing. The Society for Integrative Oncology, for example, recently released new guidelines for complementary and alternative medicine that specifically identify acupuncture as effective in treating nausea, vomiting and pain.

“With integrative oncology, there’s a hospital in The Dalles that integrates Chinese medicine into cancer treatment, and (at) the Cancer Treatment Centers of America they integrate acupuncture into cancer treatment,” Melethil said. “People are recognizing that acupuncture will get results. But I’m amazed at how many people don’t know about this.”

In The Dalles, the Mid-Columbia Medical Center’s Celilo Cancer Center offers acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine as part of a series of integrated therapies that focus on mental and emotional well-being, as well as physical recuperation. Like Melethil, the Celilo Center’s Dr. Jan Van Es is a graduate of the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, and remains one of very few acupuncture specialists in the state working with cancer patients.

The hurdles standing in the way of wider acceptance of acupuncture in the medical community are several, Melethil said. The biggest is financial.

“I’ve tried to reach out to some of the local cancer clinics, and they’re not particularly responsive,” he said. “Let’s say you’re fighting cancer; when you go to a clinic they’re looking at the financial perspective. They can bill a huge amount of money for that, including medications. So lets say you came in for acupuncture; the most they’d get is on the order of $100 per treatment. Even if you were to give a person 100 treatments, that’s $10,000. But it’s small potatoes compared to a surgical intervention.”

Melethil knows that in a for-profit health care model, large providers look upon treatment providers outside the mainstream with skepticism. That’s why he hopes to raise public awareness about the effectiveness of acupuncture. When the public speaks with a unified voice, he said, companies are more apt to listen.

“Ten percent of the people in the United States have already tried acupuncture,” Melethil said. “There’s an increasing participation and utilization, but it’s moving really slow, and that’s where the problem is at. The last thing (cancer patients) are thinking about is integrative therapies.”

Still, a national petition sent to the White House last year urging the federal government to recognize acupuncturists as health care providers approved by Medicare shows that interest is indeed spreading. Although little more than a public opinion forum, the White House petitions website still is a gauge of national interest in a given topic. The acupuncture petition has long since surpassed its goal of 25,000 signatures, and it continues to gain new backers daily.

The big thing, Melethil added, is to get more comprehensive information about acupuncture before the public. If they knew acupuncture and herbal medicine have been shown to be effective in combating the way the digestive system breaks down under radiation treatment, for example, this may strike additional interest.

“The first thing that gets you is your digestion goes out; you’re not getting enough nutrition, and your body is compromised,” Melethil said. “The good thing with Chinese medicine is we have 2,000 years of knowledge. My pitch is if you can buy it at the grocery store, please buy that.”

Josh Kulla can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 113. Follow him on Twitter, @wspokesman.




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