Acupuncture and Breast Cancer

A significant number of breast cancers have receptors for the hormone estrogen. These receptor-positive breast tumors are more likely to respond to therapy with anti-estrogen medications, which take advantage of the cancer cells’ dependence on hormones for growth.

Women with these tumors are often given treatment that blocks the production of estrogen, which is meant to slow the growth of the tumor. These treatments can induce early menopause, leading to symptoms such as hot flashes, fatigue, and excessive sweating. Because these women cannot receive hormone replacement therapy, which is usually used to treat such symptoms, doctors typically prescribe antidepressants such as the drug venlafaxine (Effexor).

A recent study examined whether acupuncture reduces some of these common side effects and produces fewer adverse effects than antidepressants. In the study [PubMed Abstract], published in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, 50 women with hormone-receptor positive breast cancer were assigned into one of two groups. The first group received 12 weeks of acupuncture, and the second group received treatment with venlafaxine.

Both groups experienced significant decreases in hot flashes,emotional and depressive symptoms, and other quality-of-life symptoms. However, women in the group taking venlafaxine began to re-experience their symptoms about two weeks after stopping drug therapy. In comparison, it took 15 weeks for the symptoms to return for women in the group receiving acupuncture. In addition, women in the acupuncture group reported no significant side effects during treatment, while the group taking venlafaxine experienced 18 incidences of adverse effects, including nauseadry mouthdizziness, and anxiety.