As cancer patients undergo rigorous conventional treatments, an increasing number are turning to complementary and alternative therapies to enhance their quality of life. Among these holistic approaches, Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and acupuncture stand out as a safe and effective treatment in the fight against cancer-related symptoms.
The sufferings associated with cancer are vast and complex, including both physical and mental aspects, which last even after the end of cancer treatment. Acupuncture has become a popular complementary treatment in oncology, especially as a non-pharmacological alternative for symptom control. [Read more: Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of Cancer]
Evidence Supporting Acupuncture For Cancer-Related Symptoms
A review of recent randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture in oncology suggests that acupuncture has a promising role in controlling a wide variety of cancer and treatment-related symptoms. Acupuncture was found to be a safe, low-cost cost and effective therapy, which further permits cancer patients to actively participate in their own care plan. 
Symptoms that seem to respond to acupuncture treatment include pain, gastrointestinal side effects, hot flushes, shortness of breath, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Post-cancer treatment patients worldwide welcome a supportive therapy, which can reduce symptoms without the need for long-term medication and improve their quality of life. [1,2]
How Does Acupuncture Work
Acupuncture, rooted in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is a therapeutic technique. It involves thin needle insertion, pressure application, or electrical stimulation and the unique concept of life energy - Qi. By fine-tuning the body's energy flow, ensuring balanced circulation of Qi, it can alleviate a range of cancer symptoms. This results in both physical and psychological benefits for the patient. These positive effects can be observed through changes in the activities of the nervous and hormonal systems.
What Cancer-Related Symptoms Can Acupuncture Help?
Acupuncture is a safe treatment with minimal side effects, and is found to be clinically effective for the management of various cancer-related symptoms including:
Over half of cancer patients still suffer significant pain which adversely impacts their quality of life. Pain may arise from the cancer itself, cancer treatments, or may be completely unrelated to the cancer. The pharmacological failure to control the pain, analgesic dependence or their adverse effects has led patients to seek out other non-drug treatments available. [Read more: Acupuncture effective for chronic muscular pain in cancer survivors]
Cancer-associated fatigue stands out as one of the most frequent side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Even after the treatment, patients often find it difficult to resume their regular daily activities. In a prospective phase II study  on patients with persistent fatigue who had completed chemotherapy, acupuncture resulted in a significant reduction in baseline fatigue scores. [Read more: Acupuncture Found Effective for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome]
Nausea and vomiting
Acupuncture stimulation at the point PC6 has repeatedly been shown to be a clinically useful treatment for postoperative nausea, vomiting, and chemotherapy-induced emesis. By 1998, the National Institute for Health in the US stated that “acupuncture is a proven effective treatment modality for nausea and vomiting”. 
Xerostomia (Dry mouth)
Xerostomia, also known as dry mouth, happens when there is not enough saliva. This symptom may be caused because of the radiation, chemotherapy or certain medication. It is accompanied by the loss of taste and difficulty in speaking and swallowing. Acupuncture treatment can help with increasing blood flow to the parotid glands, increase salivation, and stimulate tissue regeneration. 
Cancer-related hot flashes and menopausal symptoms
TCM and acupuncture have been found to reduce hot flashes and other symptoms associated with the menopause, as well as hormonal treatments for cancer. Two RCTs  found that acupuncture reduced hot flushes by up to 60% in women treated with Tamoxifen for breast cancer. [Find more information on how TCM can help women] [Read more: Menopause and TCM]
Anxiety and depression
Researchers observed changes in depression and anxiety severity across study groups and concluded that acupuncture treatment improved both anxiety and depression using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. 
Besides acupuncture, in the UK following an initial treatment, doctors recommend patients to massage acupuncture studs placed on the two upper sternal ‘ASAD’ points — anxiety, sickness and dyspnoea points for 1–2 min to provide the reduction of anxiety. This practice not only provides relief but also empowers patients to manage distressing symptoms during panic attacks.  [Read more on how TCM can help with anxiety and depression.]
Acupuncture is commonly used in treating insomnia in China, and clinical studies have shown that acupuncture may have a beneficial effect on insomnia compared with Western medication. Researches suggest that acupuncture has great potential for managing cancer-related insomnia in patients or survivors. [3,4] [Read more on how TCM can help with insomnia]
Dyspnoea (Shortness of breath)
Even when other interventions like steroids, opioids, nebulizers, and oxygen therapies have failed, a pilot study showed significant improvement in subjective scores of breathlessness, relaxation, and anxiety at 90 minutes in patients with advanced cancer-related dyspnea. 
Leukopenia means a decrease in the number of leukocytes or white blood cells. They are the body's primary defense against an infection which is why this condition places individuals at increased risk of infection. RCTs showed  that acupuncture can increase white blood cell count after chemotherapy, reduce the incidence of myelosuppression and improve the clinical treatment effectiveness. [Read more: Strengthen your Wei Qi for better immunity]
Lymphedema refers to tissue swelling caused by an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that's usually drained through the body's lymphatic system. It occurs as a consequence of cancer treatment, lymph node radiotherapy or progression of oncological disease. In patients with lymphedema, studies  reported a significant decrease in change in arm circumference and joint pain intensity when acupuncture was used with upper extremity physical exercises.
Some of the chemotherapy and drugs used to treat cancer can damage peripheral nerves, resulting in numbness, weakness, burning or pain in the hands or feet. This can last even after 6 years of treatment. A recent pilot study, published in 2022 , demonstrated promising results in treating chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy with acupuncture, with response rates of up to 66.7%.
There is no shortage of evidence supporting the use of acupuncture for various kind of discomfort related to cancer. Acupuncture is a very useful tool for managing cancer side effects. It focuses on restoring the energy flow that cancer treatments disturb. For more information and a personalised treatment plan, please consult a TCM practitioner.
David O'Regan, Jacqueine Filshie, Acupuncture and cancer, Autonomic Neuroscience, Volume 157, Issues 1–2, 2010, Pages 96-100, ISSN 1566-0702, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.autneu.2010.05.001.
Valença RJV, Costa REAR, Fernandes SMS, Yamamura ML, Acupuncture in breast cancer, Brazilian Society of Mastology, Volume 32, 2022, https://doi.org/10.29289/2594539420220032
Cao H, Pan X, Li H, Liu J. Acupuncture for treatment of insomnia: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Altern Complement Med. 2009 Nov;15(11):1171-86. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0041. PMID: 19922248; PMCID: PMC3156618.
Zhang J, Zhang Z, Huang S, Qiu X, Lao L, Huang Y, Zhang ZJ. Acupuncture for cancer-related insomnia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Phytomedicine. 2022 Jul 20;102:154160. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2022.154160. Epub 2022 May 14. PMID: 35636168.
Nian J, Sun X, Zhao W, Wang X. Efficacy and safety of acupuncture for chemotherapy-induced leukopenia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2022 Oct 21;101(42):e30995. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000030995. PMID: 36281119; PMCID: PMC9592432.