How I help cancer patients with the side-effects of treatment

British Acupuncture Council member Christine MacFie discusses her role as a volunteer complementary acupuncture practitioner at two cancer support centres.

In early 2017 I became a volunteer complementary therapist, treating cancer patients with acupuncture at two local cancer support centres. I currently spend three hours a week at the busy MacMillan Horizon Centre in Brighton. This offers complementary therapies to people from all over Sussex following a cancer diagnosis.

Additionally, I treat a few of these cancer patients privately on request, to support their health and wellbeing after their free acupuncture treatment has finished.

I generally see three patients weekly at the Horizon Centre. Since 2017 I have given over 450 voluntary and 160 paid acupuncture treatments.

I give acupuncture to patients with various cancers including:

  • Breast (around 70% of women patients)
  • Prostate (the majority of male patients)
  • Bowel (usually men)
    • Bowel (usually men)
    • Bowel (usually men)
  • Head and neck (both sexes)
  • Gynaecological (ovarian, uterine, endometrial – women)

Patients often experience physical and emotional side effects arising from their cancer treatments, some of which can be challenging. For example, men and women undergoing medical treatment for prostate and breast cancer often experience hot flushes and/or profuse sweating. Patients being treated for head and neck cancers can have additional unpleasant symptoms, as shown below.**

Horizon Centre cancer patients can self-refer for any of the complementary therapies offered. They are often recommended to try acupuncture by their consultant and other oncology team members. Individuals frequently report that a short course of acupuncture, most often three to six sessions, alleviates their treatment-related symptoms such as:

  • Joint and muscle aches and pains
  • Poor sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Hot flushes
  • Day and night sweats
  • **Dry mouth, facial and neck swelling, sore throat, impaired ability to swallow
  • Digestive issues like diarrhoea, constipation, reflux, nausea and vomiting

People also report finding acupuncture relaxing and helpful in relieving emotional issues such as low mood, anxiety, fear and uncertainty.

All Horizon Centre complementary therapists receive oncology familiarisation training as part of their induction, to increase their awareness and reduce risk. None of my cancer patients have reported any serious adverse events from acupuncture. Occasionally individuals report experiencing mild, short-lived after-effects like light-headedness and tiredness.

Complementary therapy treatments are free to Horizon Centre patients and therapists volunteer their professional services. Private patients pay for their acupuncture treatments.

Horizon Centre cancer patients can have six complementary therapy treatments of their choosing. Some use them all on acupuncture, others mix and match. At the centre’s discretion, some of my acupuncture patients will have their six sessions extended when needed.