Acupuncture is just as good as standard medication to ease hot flashes and other uncomfortable symptoms in women undergoing breast cancer treatment, according to a new study.

And as an added bonus, the needle treatment may boost the patient's sex drive and contribute to clearer thinking.


Prior studies have shown that acupuncture can reduce hot flashes in postmenopausal women without breast cancer.

All of these studies, however, compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture, not to commonly used drugs, noted Eleanor Walker, MD, division director of breast services in the department of radiation oncology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, and lead author of the new study. This is the first randomized controlled study to compare acupuncture to medication.

Many women with breast cancer receive antiestrogen hormone therapy, usually for as long as five years, in addition to other treatments.

Although hormone therapy is effective in reducing tumor recurrence, it does cause hot flashes and night sweats.

The antidepressant venlafaxine (Effexor) is the most commonly used therapy for relieving these symptoms, but the drug brings its own side effects, namely dry mouth, reduced appetite, nausea and constipation.

"We need something that's accessible that doesn't add adverse effects," Dr. Walker said.

Acupuncture Study

For this study, 50 women with breast cancer were randomly assigned to receive 12 weeks of acupuncture (twice a week for four weeks, then once a week) or daily Effexor. They were followed for a year.

The Results

Initially, both groups of women experienced similar reductions about 50%) in hot flashes and depression, with an overall improvement in quality of life.

But the acupuncture benefits were longer lived. After two weeks, women taking the antidepressant saw a resurgence in hot flashes, while women in the acupuncture arm continued to experience fewer adverse effects.

About 25% of women receiving acupuncture also reported more interest in sex while many also reported more energy and clearer thinking.

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Implication For The Future

"I think the data shows you that acupuncture is a good option for these patients (and) it has no side effects," said Dr. Walker.

"The issue most of the time is the cost of it and whether insurance companies will pay for it," Dr. Walker said. Additional studies also need to look at how often women would need booster acupuncture to minimize their symptoms.

Expert Reaction

"It's provocative but the problem is it's a small number of patients and, having participated in research trials in vasomotor symptoms [hot flashes, night sweats, etc.) in women, it's a field that has a large placebo effect," said Jay Brooks, MD, chairman of hematology/oncology at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge. "It needs to have a bigger trial."

Yoga Helps Cancer Patients

In a 10-week study of 44 women with breast cancer, half the women took a weekly 75minute gentle yoga class, while the others did not practice yoga.

Result: The yoga group reported a 50% drop, on average, in depression symptoms (such as hopelessness), less fatigue and better sleep, while the nonyoga group reported no significant change in symptoms.

If you are undergoing treatment for breast cancer: Ask your doctor about taking a gentle yoga class.

Suzanne Danhauer, PhD, assistant professor, department of internal medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

New Breast Cancer Weapon?

In laboratory studies using breast cancer cells, I researchers have found that the dietary supplement bitter melon reduced the growth and division of cancer cells and caused the cells to die more quickly. More research is needed.

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