What to say, and what not to say, to someone with cancer: BAcC response

Deborah Ross’s article, published by The Times on 8 February 2024, What to say, and what not to say, to someone with cancer suggests one of the things you should not say is: ‘I know a great homeopath/acupuncturist …’ Moreover, she writes ‘I beg you to bite your tongue — hard — if you are going to recommend against prescribed treatments’. The example Deborah Ross then gives, as explanation, is the story of her sister seeing a faith healer.

The BAcC fully agrees that people should not be dissuaded from receiving vital medical treatment. The DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH 2008 Report to ministers, commonly called the Pittillo Report, strongly recommended that acupuncture should be statutory regulated. One of the key reasons for this recommendation was “It is important that those with whom they consult are properly trained, understand the limits of their competence and know when and to whom to refer”. Despite the recommendation, acupuncture is not statutory regulated.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology Guidelines recommends the use of acupuncture for pain and chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). There is a general lack of funding for acupuncture research. Therefore, for other symptoms there is insufficient high-quality evidence available to draw firm conclusions. Large well-designed studies are needed.  Nevertheless, Cancer Research UK note that ‘most studies show that acupuncture is better than no treatment at all. And that it is as good as, or better than, standard treatment for these symptoms and side effects’:

  • chemotherapy related sickness
  • tiredness
  • pain
  • anxiety and stress
  • depression and mood changes
  • quality of life
  • hot flushes

Whilst acupuncture is not statutory regulated the BAcC is an Accredited Register with the Professional Standards Authority for Health & Social Care (PSA). The PSA protects the public by overseeing the regulation and registration of healthcare professionals – including statutorily regulated professions, such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and Accredited Registers like the BAcC. This offers a quality mark for high standards of training, safe practice, and professional conduct. Statutory regulated healthcare professionals, such as member of the General Medical Council, can use Accredited Register status as an assurance the safety and quality of care provided when making referrals.

In summary, we acknowledge the distress that can be caused by misleading and false claims. However, acupuncture is a recommended therapy for pain and CIPN for some with a cancer diagnosis. Acupuncture may provide additional benefits beyond reduction in pain and CIPN symptoms.  Therefore, we believe the key question that Deborah Ross and others should consider is: does the current regulatory approach in the UK sufficiently protect those with a cancer diagnosis who wish to try acupuncture?