Approaching Cancer with Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Chinese view on cancer starts with prevention, but in the event of a cancer diagnosis, Traditional Chinese Medicine can help balance and restore the body.

October is breast cancer awareness month and an important focus of this awareness is how to prevent it from occurring in the first place or from recurring after a diagnosis. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), including acupuncture and herbs, can be used at any stage of cancer treatment—from prevention to early diagnosis, during conventional treatment, to after those treatments are completed, or alongside your personal journey in however you chose to treat your cancer. Here I will discuss how cancer is viewed within a Chinese medical framework.

We do say that the best cure is prevention, so getting some regular acupuncture treatments whether that is weekly, monthly, or seasonally can help prevent the occurrence of many diseases. Herbs can also be taken regularly along with nutritional support to carry out treatments in between sessions. The practice of Qigong meditation or any kind of intentional and meditative movement of the body that you love to do is vital to staying healthy and keeping disease at bay. But if disease does set in as a cancer diagnosis—regular treatments can help strengthen the body to improve immune function, inhibit cancer growth, detoxify, alleviate side effects of conventional treatment, protect the cells and organs, and just make you feel more like yourself again. An acupuncturist can address what imbalances may be present and treat to correct them, as well as help you help yourself to make lasting lifestyle changes.

One of the main guiding principles within Chinese medicine is that this is a holistic system of healthcare aimed to prevent illness and restore health, not just treat disease. The entirety of a person is considered including all physiological functions and symptoms as well as mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. We see each of these parts as inseparable and intimately connected, each can affect the other, all parts are in constant communication with each other, and for optimal health they all must cooperate. And in the treatment of disease, each part must be nurtured.

The foundation of Chinese medicine is built on the concept of Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) as the organizing motive force to how our bodies work. Qi roughly translates as vital energy and is understood functionally—it is active, warming and moving. Ideally, when all things are healthy and Qi is moving freely within ourselves and the world around us, there is no disease. There are things we can do and things we can avoid to keep our health vital so that disease does not so easily disrupt our bodies or minds. When there is balance, there is a sense of health and thriving, but when there is imbalance whether due to stress, poor diet or lifestyle, hereditary or environmental conditions, there can be discomfort and sometimes illness and disease can set in if these things are long standing or stronger than our own internal Qi.

Our bodies are constantly working to maintain balance and health—to do things like digest our food, to fight a cold, to heal a wound (whether physical or emotional,) to regulate blood pressure, to get good sleep, to focus on our work, to not worry or get frustrated, even to get rid of dysfunctional mutated cells like cancer cells. Sometimes we do need more guidance and redirection when something isn’t functioning optimally. This is how an acupuncturist approaches treatment to affect healthy functioning and bring back balance to encourage healing. And in order to restore health, the root cause must be investigated to address what may have led to the development of overgrowth of cancerous cells in the first place.

Another guiding principle of TCM is that diagnosis of disease is based on determining underlying patterns of imbalance, whether it is diagnosing a common cold or cancer. With the common cold the pattern might be a ‘wind-heat’ or ‘wind-cold’ invasion, with breast cancer it may be ‘liver Qi stagnation’ or ‘kidney Qi deficiency.’ Some diseases tend to follow certain patterns, or affect certain organ systems. This is often the case with cancer.

The main patterns and factors contributing to breast cancer according to Chinese medicine are cold, stagnation, and Qi deficiency (this means your organs do not have enough energy to perform their functions optimally.) Qi as a motive force for life is warm in nature, so when there is not enough, one can feel cold. Often people with cancer run cold. If this continues over time, then both Qi and blood can stagnate contributing to a creation of a lump. This doesn’t mean that if you run cold, you’re going to get cancer, this is just one underlying pattern along with others. Cold can manifest in all kinds of ways, not just as cancer. So in treatment, the goal is to warm the body, break up stagnation, and increase and strengthen overall energy.

We can also look at what organs are affected, like if it’s a lung cancer or colon cancer, or in the case of breast cancer we can look at the chest and see what channels (or meridians) pass through the area, often if a tumor is located along a certain channel, there is likely an association with that organ and these are the liver, stomach, and kidney channels. The function and actions of these organs are understood within the unique theories of Chinese medicine, so this doesn’t mean if your tumor is along the liver channel that there is something wrong with your liver from a western medical perspective.

Other factors that contribute to cancer or any disease according to Chinese medicine are the emotions, diet and lifestyle, external and environmental conditions, and genetics. With breast cancer, anger and worry are often predominant emotions and these are associated with the liver and spleen. Again, this doesn’t mean that if you’re angry and worry a lot that you’re going to get cancer, these can lead to all kinds of other manifestations, but certain disorders are often associated with certain emotions.

When we ask a patient which emotions are predominant for them, we can often connect the dots on how this is expressing physically. If emotions continue unbalanced for long periods of time, this emotional stagnation can be a contributing factor to the development of a tumor in the breast. It becomes the physical manifestation of an emotional stuckness. It’s not just the experience of the emotion, we are human so we experience many different emotions, but if negative emotions are held in excess this can cause problems. Treatment helps soothe the discomfort of bound emotions to shift long standing emotional patterns.

If you come to an acupuncturist seeking help with prevention or treatment of breast cancer, s/he would identify underlying patterns of disharmony for you and treat accordingly. Points and herbs are chosen to correct these patterns and restore balance. Herbs can be taken internally to address constitutional imbalances and can also be used topically for pain and injury recovery. There are many herbs that have an anti-cancer effect to break up stagnation, clear toxicity, and reduce masses and accumulations; and also herbs that nourish to build immunity and strength and protect the body.

As issues come up if you’re going through conventional treatments like radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy- whether it’s hair loss, nausea, pain, healing scars, hot flashes, insomnia, fatigue, depression or anxiety- acupuncture and herbs have been shown to be very effective at treating these. Treatment will help create an overall sense of improved well-being that allows for healing.

After conventional treatments are done, sometimes women are left wondering… what now? The tumor may be gone, but it is essential to ensure that the underlying root causes that contributed to the growth of a tumor in the first place do not continue. Acupuncture and herbs as well as a healthy lifestyle can help build your energy and stamina and keep you on a healthy path where your own internal environment is stronger than disease.

During this month, take deep breaths into the chest. On the inhale breathe in vitality, joy, courage & relaxation. On the exhale let go of fear, frustration, worry, sadness, or anything else is not serving you.

Sources: A Woman’s Guide to Healing from Breast Cancer by Nan Lu, O.M.D., L.Ac.

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