As a practitioner of Chinese medicine with the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush University Medical Center (Chicago, IL), I have the privilege of providing care for many women. In my discussions, hot flashes (HFs) are among one of the most common symptoms people ask for help with as they cause both physical and emotional distress. According to a recent study, HFs affect as many as two-thirds of all breast cancer survivors.

HFs are sudden and intense sensations of heat in the body that vary in intensity, duration, and frequency. They commonly interrupt sleep, and often cause a sense of discomfort and anxiety. People often complain of experiencing warmth throughout the body, sweating, rapid heart rate, and chills. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), hot flashes are “a problem for many menopausal women and a common side effect of breast cancer treatment.” Chemotherapy is one example of a cancer treatment that can cause HFs. The reason this is thought to happen is that there is a rapid and drastic withdrawal of estrogen in the body, which can often lead to the onset or worsening of HFs.

So, what can be done to manage hot flashes? Typically, estrogen (a hormonal drug) is given to treat HFs. However, given that estrogen can put women at an increased risk for breast cancer, it is usually avoided by women with a history of breast cancer. For this reason, many women seek out non-pharmacological (aka – non drug) options.

If you are experiencing hot flashes, here are some ideas you may want to speak with your health care providers about:

  • Avoid Triggers. According to WebMD, there are certain triggers that may bring on HFs.  These include: stress, caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, tight clothing, heat, and cigarette smoke.
  • Relax. A recent report by NCCAM states that hypnosis sessions can help decrease HFs.  In the study, women who had hypnosis 1x per week, for 5 weeks, reported a 68% reduction in frequency/severity, and experienced an average of 4.39 fewer hot flashes per day.
  • Get Acupuncture. In June 2011, an article in the medical journal Seminars in Oncology reported on a randomized controlled trial that looked at the use of acupuncture for HFs in women with breast cancer.  The study demonstrated that women who had 2x week acupuncture treatments for 5 weeks, plus 5 additional treatments, had a reduction in both daytime and evening HFs. This decrease in HFs persisted for 12 weeks following the intervention.

Just like massage, yoga, or relaxation, acupuncture is considered a form of complementary or integrative medicine.  This means that acupuncture is used in combination with, not as a replacement of, the care your medical team provides.  When people have been surveyed as to why they make a decision to include complementary or integrative medicine in their care, they list reasons like:

  • to do everything possible to help themselves heal
  • to reduce pain
  • to feel empowered
  • to have a sense of control

Like many people, you may be asking yourself, “Well, what exactly is acupuncture, and how does it work?  Acupuncture is part of a whole medical system called traditional Chinese medicine. The procedure of “acupuncture” is the gentle insertion of single use, sterile, needles into the skin on various parts of the body.  Unlike needles that are used for blood-draws, acupuncture needles are extremely tiny – almost as thin as a strand of hair. During an acupuncture treatment, the practitioner places needles at various acupuncture points, located on the body, to help normalize energy flow in the body. Most people find the treatment to be very relaxing.

So, how is acupuncture thought to work? When an acupuncture needle is inserted into the skin, various parts of the brain release a variety of hormones in your body to help enhance a sense of well-being, reduce pain, reduce inflammation, and support the immune system. According to the National Cancer Institute, acupuncture in cancer supportive care is commonly used to manage cancer treatment related symptoms. Examples include helping with nausea and vomiting, cancer pain, hot flashes, anxiety, insomnia, poor appetite, and peripheral neuropathy.

According to recent statistics, surveys estimate that 3.1 million American adults, and 150,000 children, have used acupuncture.  More specifically, other surveys have found that up to 31% of people with cancer have incorporated acupuncture into their care.  I have been treating patients here at Rush for almost 6 years, and continue to be amazed at the positive impact acupuncture has at lessening the side-effects of cancer treatment, and how much it helps lift the human spirit.

If you are interested in acupuncture, please keep two bits of information in mind. First and foremost is the importance of communication. Please share your interest in acupuncture with your doctor and health care team. In doing so, they can (1) help make sure your body’s immune system is strong enough to have acupuncture; (2) give you a “referral” if your state requires one; and (3) may also be able to help you to find a reliable Chinese medicine practitioner in your area.

My second recommendation is do your homework.  Before you make an appointment with a practitioner of Chinese medicine (eg., acupuncturist), take the time to make sure they have the appropriate credentials (eg., education, training, license). In the state of Illinois, unless one holds a medical degree (MD), a practitioner of Chinese medicine must (1) graduate from a school accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, (2) pass a national board examination by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and (3) be state licensed before they can provide care for patients.

If you’re reading a bio of someone and after their name you see credentials like (1) MSTOM or MAOM, (2) Dipl OM, and (3) LAc – you’re onto a good start. These credentials mean that this particular practitioner has (1) completed a minimum of 3 years of Master’s level education & clinical training (MSTOM or MAOM); (2) they have passed their national board certification exam (Dipl OM); and (3) they are licensed to practice (LAc) in their state of residences.

Once you find someone with the appropriate background, you may want to consider narrowing your search to find someone who specializes in cancer, and give them a call. Ask them questions about their training/education, and practice (eg., location, fees, specialty, years of practice, etc).  As you complete your acupuncture treatments, keep notes of your response (eg., nausea is less, feel more energy, less tired). At future appointments with your doctor(s) – let them know you are having acupuncture, and share how your body is responding to the treatments. Who knows, perhaps the information you share with your health care team will be of help to other patients.

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Angela Johnson, Dipl OM, MSTOM, MPH, LAc, has been in field of integrative medicine at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center for 11 years. She is a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine who specializes in oncology, and also collaborates in research & publishing. She is also the founder of re:balance. Her passion is helping people heal.

Read more about Angela at http://rebalancemindbody.com
  • Thanks for the great article Angela. This is Eric Wisotzky who had a previous article on The Plum. I also wanted to mention that sometimes chemotherapy can cause heat intolerance. This can be successfully treated with medications. A cancer rehab specialist can help.