Executive Health: Breast Cancer Patients Experience Fewer Side Effects from Anticancer Drug When Receiving Either Real or Sham Acupuncture

A new analysis has found that both real and sham acupuncture treatments may help alleviate side effects of drugs commonly used to treat breast cancer. Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings may help clinicians improve care for cancer patients. The results also raise the question of whether sham acupuncture is truly inert or may, like real acupuncture, have beneficial effects.

Breast cancer patients who take a type of drug called an aromatase inhibitor (which inhibits the enzyme that produces estrogen in postmenopausal women) often experience side effects, including joint/muscle pain and stiffness, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. To see if acupuncture could help alleviate patients’ symptoms, Ting Bao MD, DAMBA, MS, of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore, and her colleagues recruited 47 breast cancer survivors taking aromatase inhibitors and suffering from joint/muscle discomfort to participate in a clinical trial. About half of the patients received eight weekly acupuncture treatments, and the other half received a kind of fake (or “sham”) acupuncture that involved non-penetrating retractable needles placed in sham acupoints (non-acupuncture points).

Both groups experienced lessening of their symptoms, especially hot flashes, but there was little difference in benefits between the real acupuncture and the sham acupuncture. “It could be that there is no difference, or it could be that in this small trial we just didn’t have enough patients to detect a significant difference,” said Dr. Bao. Notably, no patients experienced any significant side effects from either type of acupuncture treatment. “This is important because other treatments for symptoms often do have side effects, so showing that this treatment works without side effects could be a big improvement in the treatment of cancer survivors,” explained Dr. Bao.

Although the researchers did not plan to look at racial differences, after the trial was completed they found that women who were African American experienced a greater reduction in the severity and frequency of hot flashes if they had real acupuncture rather than sham acupuncture when compared to non-African American women. “This kind of result is not definitive, but it does suggest that we should probably look further into the possibility that acupuncture may work better in some ethnicity groups than others,” said Dr. Bao.

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