In what appears to be a perfect union between Western academic medicine and complementary/alternative treatment, a Harvard Medical School oncologist is studying the use of acupuncture to help alleviate the symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment for women. Cancer specialist and surgeon Annekathryn Goodman, MD has added acupuncture certification to her many other credentials and now offers this complementary treatment to her patients undergoing cancer treatment at the Vincent Women’s Care Division of Massachusetts General Hospital.
“My personal vision is to create a center for women with cancer that I am calling ‘Strength and Serenity,’ says Dr. Goodman. “My goal is to use complementary modalities, particularly acupuncture, to alleviate the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment that we have difficulty managing with Western medicine.” She has found the treatment helpful for alleviating neuropathy—pain or burning or numbness in hands and feet, as well as nausea from chemotherapy or radiation or from the cancer itself. “Sometimes I treat women before the chemo, which seems to lessen their suffering,” she says. “Acupuncture also seems to help people who are done with their therapy but still have side effects such as fatigue, depression and anxiety as well as neuropathy. So many people are on antidepressants to help them with their stress. Acupuncture seems to help alleviate symptoms.”
Since 2004, Dr. Goodman has been transforming a sterile Mass General exam room into a tranquil environment for hour-long sessions of acupuncture, which uses tiny needles to stimulate energy or “qi” (pronounced “chi”) points on the body, based on 5,000-year-old methods from Traditional Chinese Medicine. She uses heat lamps to warm up the needles, replaces harsh fluorescent lights with softly glowing lamps, plays soothing music and adds bamboo shoots and fabrics as decoration. “My focus is to balance the patient’s energy, or life force,” says Dr. Goodman, “This treats the ‘root’ of the problem, which then helps to alleviate the ‘branch’ symptom, whether it is constipation, nausea, headache or depression.” (Please see How Do We Heal for more details of acupuncture.)
In a recent research collaboration among the Mass General Vincent Women’s Care Division, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Dana Farber Cancer Center, acupuncture was found to create a modest improvement in white blood cell counts among women undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer. (Cancer treatment tends to lower white blood cell counts, which compromises the immune system.) In a review of worldwide data about the use of acupuncture to alleviate side effects of cancer treatment, Dr. Goodman found that the evidence in support of acupuncture was “helpful but the data was mixed.” “It is hard to unify existing data in a scientific way,” she says. “But there is certainly interest around the world in studying the use of acupuncture to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients.” For her part, she hopes to continue the work of the Strength and Serenity Center to conduct education, research and clinical care not only about acupuncture, but also about other forms of complementary care for women with cancer.