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  • Writer's pictureAku Energija

Acupuncture for Holistic Cancer Treatment in Slovenia

Slovenia is among the top European countries in terms of cancer incidence and mortality. The five most common cancers in Slovenia, which account for almost 60% of all new cancer cases, are skin cancer (non-melanoma), prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer. [1]

Conventional Cancer Treatment 

Cancer is usually diagnosed and treated using conventional medicine. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormonal therapy, targeted therapies. Patients may also be given supportive treatments to treat side effects.

Very often cancer treatments may cause many side effects. A side effect occurs when treatment damages healthy cells, or organs are removed during surgery. Side effects can be different for each person, such as fatigue, pain, nausea/vomiting, hair loss, skin changes, lack of appetite, mouth sores, diarrhea, constipation, nervous system effects, etc. 

Complementary Cancer Treatment

First of all, let us stress the difference between alternative and complementary treatment. Alternative treatment is used instead of standard treatments. This type of treatment is usually discouraged. On the other hand, complementary treatment complements medical treatment methods and is an addition to the basic treatment of cancer. It helps to relieve symptoms, side effects of treatment and can improve quality of life.

In modern oncology, it is no longer just the survival of patients that is important, but also their quality of life. This can be significantly improved by implementing integrated oncological rehabilitation. Complementary cancer therapies are usually not aimed at eliminating the cancer, but rather at relieving symptoms and making it easier to cope with the effects of conventional treatments. Complementary cancer therapies help to alleviate the negative effects of chemotherapy, such as fatigue and nausea, strengthen the immune system, and help relieve stress. [2]

Complementary treatments include [3]: 

  1. Traditional medical systems These are closely linked to a philosophical view of the world and the human being in it. These include Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Traditional Indian Medicine or Ayurveda, homeopathy, and naturopathy.

  2. Relaxation techniques and exercise therapies These practices use a variety of techniques to influence bodily functions and symptoms through the mind. Meditation and breathing techniques, different styles of yoga, deep relaxation, Tai Chi, and creative expression (art, music therapy, dance).

  3. Manipulative and bodywork techniques They try to correct the imbalance by manipulation (moving one or more parts of the body into healing positions). Well-known are the Alexander Technique, osteopathy, chiropractic, various massages, and reflexology.

  4. Biologically based therapies These use natural products - healing substances such as herbs, minerals, vitamins, and nutritional supplements.

  5. Bioenergy therapies These involve the use of energy fields. They are divided into bioenergetic therapies: qi gong, reiki, therapeutic touch; and bioelectromagnetic therapies: magnetic or light therapy.

TCM and Acupuncture for Cancer Treatment

Chinese medicine has been practiced for 3,000 years or more. Lao Li Xing, director of the School of Chinese Medicine at Hong Kong University, believes that the ancient practice can fill the gaps and overcome some of the limitations of Western medicine, such as cancer and the side effects of treatment. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are crucial but often have problematic side effects: insomnia, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes dry mouth from the radiation therapy. Chinese medicine can play a bigger role in helping patients’ quality of life. Both Western medicine and Chinese medicine together will get a patient back to good health. [4]

The value of Chinese Medicine lies in its different means of diagnosis and intervention, emphasizing nurturing health, preventing disease, defending capacity in health and disease, and function-oriented wellbeing of a person as a whole. Often Chinese medicine offers alternative solutions where conventional medicine fails. Thus, integrating the wisdom and approaches of both TCM and conventional medicine represents a shortcut to meet many unmet medical needs. While a Western doctor investigates what's going on inside his body, a Chinese medicine practitioner conditions the body as a whole, unable to see what's causing a problem specifically -- highlighting the need for a combination and not solely Chinese remedies. [4]

Few studies have examined the complexity of breast cancer survivors’ attitudes, lived experiences, barriers, and perceptions in using TCM as part of their treatment journey. Participants used TCM as a form of self-help and as a complement to standard care. Overall, 100% of the participants used acupuncture, 62% used Chinese herbal medicine, 23% used Qigong, and 23% used Chinese dietary therapy. Participants reported perceived outcomes and health benefits from TCM usage ranging from increased coping mechanisms, relieving stress and side-effects of standard treatment, the desire to be proactive in the treatment journey, and having a locus of control. Some cited the need to have “time-out” and the therapeutic relationship with the practitioner as being important. [5]

Acupuncture for Cancer Treatment in Slovenia

Acupuncture is a well-established and increasingly used complementary method. It is used to relieve pain syndromes resulting from medical treatment (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation). It is effective for chronic neuropathic pain that is resistant to drug treatment, for reducing nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy and radiation, and for premature menopause in breast cancer and related problems such as hot flushes, which may be accompanied by palpitations, insomnia, mood disorders, and depression. [6]

Acupuncture has been an official method of Western medicine since the late 1960s and early 1970s and, according to the Health Insurance Institute of Slovenia, is available on referral as a method of pain relief. A referral can be issued by a personal physician or an authorized specialist if he or she considers that the patient needs this treatment. Acupuncture treatment for pain under compulsory health insurance is allowed for those conditions resulting from disease or injury of the musculoskeletal or nervous system. [7, 8] [Read more: Acupuncture effective for chronic muscular pain in cancer survivors]

Acupuncture on referral is performed in the pain clinic (so-called Western acupuncture), by anesthetists with additional expertise in this field. There are two types of acupuncture: one is traditional Chinese acupuncture, based on the basics of 2,000 years ago, and the other is Western acupuncture. Unlike TCM, which treats the patient holistically, Western acupuncture combines and uses a selection of points that are suitable for treating specific conditions. [8]

Acupuncture for breast cancer patients is also provided at the Oncology Institute as part of the pain clinic. 120 patients are treated annually, as capacity allows [6]. In the pilot study OREH (O - oncological, REH - rehabilitation), which took place at the Oncology Institute of Ljubljana from 2019 to 2022, 600 breast cancer patients underwent comprehensive oncological rehabilitation. The conclusions of the OREH pilot study show that patients who received integrated rehabilitation had a better quality of life, fewer problems and side effects of treatment, shorter sick leave, and less disability retirement. Patients in the study were referred to: the Department of Psycho-Oncology at the Oncology Institute (OI), treatment at the Clinical Nutrition Unit of the OI, physiotherapy at the OI, treatment for pain and hot flashes at the Pain Clinic of the OI, treatment at the Gynaecology Clinic of the OI, vocational rehabilitation at the URI SOČA, physical rehabilitation at the Institute of Medical Rehabilitation at the UKC Ljubljana, discussion with a family doctor and workshops at the Health Promotion Centres. Due to long wait times for some treatments in Slovenia, such as acupuncture or cognitive behavioral therapy, some patients did not receive treatment immediately or when they needed it most. The average wait time for acupuncture is 120 days. [9]

Cancer is an unpredictable disease that drastically changes one's life and, when combined with treatment, can wreak havoc on our bodies. Unfortunately, there is no miracle cure for cancer. However, a body that is calm, rested and nourished with the necessary nutrients can fight cancer better. That's why complementary therapies, such as TCM and acupuncture, are a great way to help conventional medicine and ensure the best possible chance of recovery. For more information and a personalized treatment plan, consider consulting a TCM practitioner.


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