Living & Being, September 2009

When facing cancer, chemotherapy and radiation are strong, aggressive medicines. If you choose these forms of treatment, you want to be equally strong and aggressive in supporting the body’s physical and emotional well-being.

While cancer care may feel like a full-time job, there are ways to make it easier on yourself. Complementary and alternative medicine and a self-care regimen will ease the body’s physical and emotional stress while undergoing cancer treatments.

Studies show that up to 80 percent of cancer patients are seeking complementary medicine, the numbers increasing over the years. Acupuncture is a perfect complement to Western medical treatment. It can address side effects of chemo and radiation and alleviate them in varying degrees. Nausea and vomiting, fatigue, adrenal exhaustion, muscle and joint aches, pain and numbness in the extremities, the burning and drying effects associated with radiation, general pain management and stress are among the areas acupuncture helps tremendously.

In 1997, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health issued a consensus statement on acupuncture that reported, “Studies of both acupuncture and electroacupuncture show that the techniques can be effective for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced acute nausea and produce few or no side effects.”

As an acupuncturist with a position at a cancer care center in Manhattan, as well as a private practice locally and in New York City, I see proof of this on a daily basis. In addition to alleviating physical side effects from chemo and radiation, acupuncture greatly reduces stress.

Dealing with cancer is extremely stressful, even if you feel you’re handling the situation in the best possible way. It’s a huge change in your daily routine – from managing many additional appointments to time away from family and work. Factor in potential side effects and emotional concerns. During a stressful life period, we get sick more often, we throw our back out, we may get headaches, our digestion may go off.

An Acupuncture Treatment

I’ll tell you about a woman who came to the clinic. She was in the middle of a six-week round of chemotherapy and was extremely nauseous, unable to sleep, frustrated and very stressed. I read her chart, had her sit down as we discussed her symptoms, her emotional state, her concerns.

Then I took her pulse. In Chinese medicine, there are 12 pulses – six on each wrist, corresponding to the 12 organ systems. This lets the practitioner know which pathway of qi, or energy, to consider needling. Upon inspecting her tongue, I noted the color, shape and quality of the tongue coat, and saw the veins under the tongue were engorged as well.

The appearance of her tongue and the quality of her pulse pointed to heat in the body, qi stagnation (energy stuck in the body, not able to move freely) and blood stasis. Her pulse was tight and wiry in one position. She said she typically reacts to stress with a sense of frustration and anger, which would explain, in part, that quality.

I had her lie on the table, and proceeded to a few gentle adjustments to her feet, a way of grounding and calming the patient. A deep sigh showed the relaxation had started.

Explaining that I was going to do a very gentle clearing treatment, I showed her the needles. Hair-thin, sterile, disposable metal needles are inserted into selected points on the body. Fairly painless, the patient often experiences a subtle rush of energy emanating from the needle site.

When all the needles were in – seven in all – I went to each one and turned it gently. I checked her pulse again, and saw the wiry pulse was softer, while the extremely deficient pulse in another location was starting to come up. I let her rest a while, returning every few minutes to check on her, reading her pulse, ensuring her comfort.

When the needles were taken out, I asked her to take a few breaths before getting off the table.

“I can actually do a full inhale,” she said. “Before the treatment, I couldn’t do that!”

She looked much different – calmer, happier, the light returning to her eyes. She said she was experiencing a sense of lightness, “as if this weight were taken off me. Does that make sense to you?”

I assured her this experience was completely understandable. As human beings, we store energy in our body, which are reactions to physical and emotional trauma. Whether it’s muscle stiffness or pain, worry, anxiety or fear, this energy is not beneficial. It can deplete our resources and/or cause stagnation and blockages – all of which cause pain in some form.

The next week, she said her nausea was significantly better, she was sleeping better. “I feel like I’m more … ME , and my husband noticed that as well,” she said. Over time, we addressed other symptoms that came up and treated them accordingly.

This patient extended the effectiveness of the acupuncture – and medical treatments – by simple self-care steps as well. She continued with acupuncture treatments.

She is expecting her first child this fall.

Why Acupuncture?

The simplest explanation is that acupuncture unblocks energy stuck in the body. When this unblocking occurs, the body resumes its free flow of energy and blood. The practice of acupuncture has been recorded for the past 2,000 years, and archaeological findings suggest the process goes back 5,000 years. Theory and philosophy can be traced back 8,000 years. While Chinese medicine is complex with an extensive historical span, the simplicity of the system makes it timeless. With its many approaches and styles, this basic tenet of clearing blocks is applicable to each and every symptom – whether physically or emotionally induced.

For instance, a patient’s backache could result from the physical placement of a port or from stress – holding the body in a tense, rigid position. When we are tense, we tend to take shallow breaths, which do not allow the free flow of oxygen, blood and energy. The ribs do not expand to their full capacity, the muscles attached to them do not stretch adequately. Atrophy sets in, pain ensues. Nausea, for example, can be chemically induced and aggravated by tension and worry.

While acupuncture addresses mind and body pain at the same time, a practitioner may choose to take a more intentioned approach with a particular treatment. Working with patients in a cancer care center, some of the most powerful sessions had a psycho-emotional focus. While chemo and radiation are physical substances and surgery is a physical intervention -†a diagnosis of cancer is an emotional turning point in anyone’s life.

From a scientific point of view, cells have mutated incorrectly. From a psycho-emotional perspective, there is an emotional counterpart to the cancer’s genesis, progression and prognosis. We are not just body parts strung together. Physical and emotional health and well-being are connected.

Your Emotional Well-Being

When you have cancer, it is a call to change and can be a powerful teacher. Take charge of your healing. Surround yourself with people who inspire and support you.

Delegate jobs to family, friends and loved ones. Ask for assistance – most people are ready and willing to help out, but they may not know the best way to do that. If you’re too tired to prepare your daily veggies, ask a friend to come over and help wash, cut up and store them for you.

Cry, let your grief out. And then let it go and note all the things in your life for which you have gratitude. 

Empower yourself by taking charge of your healing.

Choose the best practitioners for you – which may not be your best friend’s practitioners. Good nutrition, sufficient sleep, reducing stress and careful exercise are all key factors.

Check in with your goals – at every opportunity. Disabling emotions will cloud that goal vision. It is up to you to act despite those depleting feelings. As you face treatments, take medicines, live with a health regimen – remember it is all for the purpose of being healthy.

Act with confidence. Be confident you are healthy. The word comes from the Latin con fidele, meaning “with faith.” Not with proof, not with a guarantee. With faith.

Proceed on your health journey with confidence, and be well.

The Importance of Self Care during Cancer Treatments

While cancer care may feel like a full-time job, there are ways to make it easier on yourself.

This article offers support suggestions for you to consider. Taking on one’s healing will augment every treatment the patient is utilizing – from medical care to any complementary or alternative therapy. You will see that a little effort initially will result in greater energy, less stress, and a more direct route to healing yourself.

360 degree Breathing

When we are stressed, or in pain, the breath almost always become more shallow and less effective. Breathing sends oxygen, qi (energy) and blood throughout the body, all necessary for the body’s healthy maintenance. Most people in pain or stress breathe shallowly, and more pain and stress result.

Try this type of breathing throughout the day and see it lessen your stress reaction, and lower your pain level:

Start with an exhale, through the mouth. Push out all the air you can, a much longer exhale than usually taken. As you do this, push your abdomen in, as if you were deflating your body.

Breathe in through the nose, and as you inhale, push out your abdomen, expanding it to accommodate a full breath. You might want to rest your hand just below your belly button and watch it move outward with the inhalation and inward as you exhale. Inhale, inhale some more, hold it to for a few counts, extending the abdomen. Do this several times.

When this is comfortable, continue with this style of breathing, but with the next inhale, feel your entire torso – back and front – expand with the breath. We have pleura of the lung located along the back – so fill them up with air. Remember to keep your shoulders down.

Breathe like this a few times, until it’s comfortable. With the next inhale, imagine your entire body filling up with air, as if you were a balloon expanding. Head, torso, arms, abdomen, legs …. everything expands 360 degrees.

Wrist Bands for Nausea

Motion sickness bands (also called Sea bands) can decrease nausea and vomiting. A small bead embedded in an elasticized wristband presses down on an acupuncture point, PC6, on the wrist. Controlled clinical trials have cited the efficacy of using this acupuncture point to control nausea and vomiting during chemo and radiation, with its effectiveness prolonged by using acupressure (meaning slight pressure applied to this point. Exploratory studies in hospitals have shown the efficacy of wrist bands for during cancer treatments.

Note: it is very important to correctly position the band – the bead should rest three thumb widths (the patient’s thumb as a measure), above the wrist crease on the palm side of the arm. There are two tendons that are there, which you can easily see by pressing all your fingers together. Place the bead between them. There is a small percentage of people who have only one tendon there (a normal aberration), so if you’re one of them, adjust the bead towards the pinky side of the one tendon.

A Simple Qi Gong Exercise

Maintaining a balance of yin and yang within the body is crucial to health maintenance. Yin is moisture, darkness, shade, cool, inward. Yang is dry, light, sunny, hot, outward.

Chemo and radiation treatments are very yin depleting. This is why there may be symptoms of dry mouth, hot flashes, dry eyes, dry skin. One way to restore the body’s yin is with this simple qi gong exercise. “Qi” means energy and “gong” means skill. Qi gong is the skill of attracting vital energy, a self-healing art that combines movement and meditation.

Sit in a comfortable position. Draw up saliva in your mouth, as if you were going to spit. On a scientific level, there are many enzymes in saliva that initiate digestion long before the food reaches the digestive tract. Most of eat so rapidly, on the run, that we do not take advantage of these valuable enzymes.

As the saliva increases in your mouth, imagine an opening in the top of your head, in the area of the fontanelle. Picture a stream of light entering that opening and slowly streaming throughout your body. Swish the saliva around your mouth – as if it were a mouthwash.

Rub your tongue over the front, back and sides of your teeth and mouth. Then swallow your saliva. Repeat this three times.

As stated above, qi gong combines movement and meditation and this pairing is important. There is an intention of increasing the saliva, moving it around the mouth, swallowing – combined with the light visualization. All of that gives this simple exercise its power.

While this exercise at first may sound a little off-putting, try it for a few days and see an alleviation of your body’s dryness.

Foods to help cool off from radiation

If you are undergoing radiation, add in some cooling foods – not cold foods, which can be too much for the system. Our bodies register a temperature of 98.6 F normally, and when you add frozen or cold foods or iced drinks, the body must work harder to regain its normal temperature. The digestive system is adversely affected by too-cold foods as well, and during this time in particular, you want to make everything easiest for the body, as it is already stressed enough.

  • Here are some food tips to consider:

  • Watermelon is extremely cooling (consider not having it ice cold from the fridge).

  • All melons (the white of the melons is very cooling, so don’t throw that away).

  • Cucumber

  • Celery

  • Asparagus (clears heat).

  • All fruits and vegetables as they are cooling.

  • Gently poached pears aid digestion and are very tonifying for the lung.

  • Cooked sweet potatoes, yams, yucca, carrots are great when you’re feeling energy deficient.

Go easy on the raw foods, as they are harder to digest, and you want to make everything easier for the body at this time. Juicing is one method you can use – watermelon and cucumbers are nice to juice together. Don’t roast or BBQ too much, steaming or light sauteeing is preferable

  • Chrysanthemum tea.

  • Honeysuckle tea – very cooling and anti-inflammatory.

  • These teas are found at Asian markets and some health food stores

  • You could add honey to the tea, which is soothing to the throat.

  • Nettles

Drinking nettles infusions (like a tea, but steeped four hours minimum) will restore balance, as it is blood-building and yin-restorative. It is also excellent for adrenal fatigue. The herb leaves are used – not the tea bags, which are not strong enough. The entire household benefits from drinking nettles.

To make an infusion, you will need:

– Nettles in bulk – not tea bags.

– A large glass jar with a tight lid. Ball jars are best; the half of full gallon-sized iced tea jars work well, too.

Fill the jar with a few inches of nettles and fill to the brim with boiling water. Cover and let steep 4-8 hours.

Strain and drink. Refrigerate what’s not used. May be reheated gently. Add honey or sweetener if desired.

To keep the glass from breaking when filling with boiling water:

- Make sure the glass jar is at room temperature.

- Don’t have the glass jar sit on cold surface

- Don’t let the kettle touch the edge of the glass.

A Visualization Technique to help Hot Flashes

Heat rises, so when you’re feeling waves of heat, ground yourself and send that heat downwards. When an acupuncturist is needling a patient, he or she can help the person send the qi, or energy, in different directions. With a little practice, you can do this yourself. One way is to visualize your feet in a cool stream. Feel the water flow over your feet, put your attention and focus on grounding your feet.

You can from time to time, literally run your feet under cool running tap water, or even soak them in a room temperature / slightly warm footbath. Maybe add in an essential oil, such as lavender. (You could add the oils to some baking soda or epsom salts and then disperse them in the water to slow down the oils’ evaporation rate).

I have seen patients deter an oncoming hot flash using the visualization technique. Over time, it has been reported to me this was an extremely useful tool to reduce them all around. It’s pretty simple, not very time-consuming and costs nothing.


This is a homeopathic remedy, which can be taken internally (tablets) or applied topically in gel form. The gel or cream may be applied to bruises (on unbroken skin only). The tablets could be taken before an operation or medical procedure to help reduce post-operative bruising and swelling.

Since homeopathic preparations contain extremely small or undetectable amounts; they are safe and without undesirable side-effects. They can be purchased at any health food store and many drugstores. Follow the package directions for dosages. If taking arnica homeopathic tablets before an operation, take it 2-3x a day before, then frequently following the procedure – every hour to start, then decreasing the dosage. If you have been advised to fast before a procedure, do not take anything during the fasting parameters.

For best results, do not eat or drink for 15 minutes before or after taking this homeopathic remedy. Also note: this is a homeopathic preparation of arnica, not an herbal extract.

Herbs and Supplements

Err on the side of caution when taking any supplement or herb. Some of them may interact adversely with the Western biomedical treatments you are undergoing. Let your doctor know what you are doing to support the Western medicine. You want a partner, not an adversary, in your healing approach. It’s also important to let your complementary and alternative medicine practitioner know what medications and procedures you are using.

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interesting blog sections, see Susanne Dixon

–> Read the 7 Levels of Healing article – all parts of it. Incredibly inspiring!

–> This is a subscription site – your doctor or cancer care center may subscribe to it

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