As you know, the CHOICE Study is investigating acupuncture and cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). In last May’s blog we explored CBT-I; this month, we will outline the use of acupuncture as an integrative therapy for those affected by cancer. Information in this post is based on a webinar given by Dr. Jun Mao on April 3, 2017, for members of the Society for Integrative Oncology.

Acupuncture is one of the subcategories of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Other subcategories include qigong, tai chi, tui na (a form of therapeutic bodywork), and the use of herbs. Though TCM has been used in Asia for two thousand years, it was largely unknown in the West until 1971. In that year, a New York Times journalist, James Reston, traveled to China ahead of then-President Nixon’s diplomatic visit. Mr. Reston fell ill with appendicitis, and was treated in a Chinese hospital with acupuncture for post-surgical pain. In his news reports, he included his positive experience with acupuncture, bringing awareness of this therapy to the US.(1)

Acupuncture as an Integrative Therapy in People Affected by Cancer

Today, millions of Americans (4%) use acupuncture; among cancer patients, the percentage is higher (10%).(2) There is a growing body of evidence supporting the use of acupuncture to relieve commonly experienced side effects of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting, pain, aromatase inhibitor related joint pain, and cancer related fatigue. Dr. Mao’s own research (see Sept. and Nov. 2015 blog posts) has shown acupuncture’s effectiveness in managing hot flashes and sleep disturbance.

According to a survey of how breast cancer patients make decisions about acupuncture, the desire for a non-drug option tops the list.(3) Even into survivorship, those with cancer often prefer a more natural treatment free of toxic side effects. For those cancer patients and survivors seeking acupuncture, it is helpful to have realistic expectations. As Dr. Mao stated in the webinar, “Acupuncture is not magic”.

In an acupuncture session, the acupuncturist places very fine needles into the skin along energy pathways called meridians. This restores the flow of chi, or energy through the body. The needles are left in place for at least a half hour to achieve the desired result. In China, heat is applied to certain needles, inducing moxibustion (heat stimulation). In the US, electroacupuncture is often used instead, adding a mild electric current between acupuncture needles after they are placed in the body. Usually given once a week for six to ten weeks, with accumulating benefit, acupuncture’s effectiveness often lasts for months. 

If possible, patients should seek an acupuncturist who is familiar with conventional cancer treatment and its side effects. (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offers an oncology acupuncture course, which four hundred community acupuncturists have taken.) Many large cancer centers already offer acupuncture, along with other integrative therapies.

Acupuncture is gaining acceptance and popularity as an integrative oncology therapy effective in relieving symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment and improving patients’ quality of life. Clinical research continues to provide evidence for acupuncture’s use in cancer patients and survivors.


1.Prensky W. Reston helped open a door to acupuncture. New York Times. Dec. 14, 1995. Available from URL

2.Mao J. The role of oncology acupuncture for cancer patients. Webinar via Society of Integrative Oncology. 4-3-2017.

3.Mao J, Leed R, Bowman M, et al. Acupuncture for hot flashes: Decision making by breast cancer survivors. J Am Board Fam Med. 2012 May-June;25(3): 323-332