Study: Accupuncture helps abate cancer treatment side effect

February 20, 2012 4:52:00 PM PST
Battling cancer is a difficult struggle on its own. But when the side effects of the treatment interfere with quality of life, simple, everyday tasks can become a challenge.

Now a new study at M.D. Anderson -- in collaboration with researchers in China -- shows how acupuncture is being used to fix a common side effect of getting radiation to the head and neck for cancer.

Bastiaan Boll has been battling head and neck cancer since his diagnosis back in December 2010. But the radiation used to battle his cancer came with an awful side effect -- xerostomia, or chronic dry mouth.

"It's hard to swallow. It's hard to taste anything," Boll said.

Boll says the condition made eating nearly impossible.

"To eat a sandwich, it would take me about three hours. Because there's nothing to help with the digestion of that food. You gotta keep chewing and chewing until you break it up," he said.

Desperate for help, he was enrolled in a study using acupuncture to treat radiation-induced dry mouth.

"I believe this will become the new standard of care for patients with this condition," said Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, a professor in M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's departments of oncology and behavioral science.

Dr. Cohen says using acupuncture with radiotherapy reduces the severity of this condition.

"As soon as three weeks into the radiation treatment, there was much more saliva flow in the patients who were getting acupuncture," Dr. Cohen said.

"I don't feel a thing. I don't feel a thing," Boll said.

It's made a tremendous difference in Boll's life. His appetite has returned and eating is no longer an exhausting chore.

"The biggest thing for me was I wanted to be able to taste food to stay interested in eating," he said.

"Within a month, he was back to doing his own schedule and what he was supposed to be doing and we have nothing else to attribute it to than the treatment he got here, especially the acupuncture," said Boll's wife, Colleen Passero.

And there's more...

"Not only did the patients have improved symptoms, specifically about dry mouth, but they also reported overall better quality of life," Dr. Cohen said.

It's something Boll can attest to.

"I would never not want to be without it, that's for sure," Boll said.

Patients in the study received acupuncture therapy three times per week during the seven-week course of radiation. Researchers say they had dramatically lower cases of dry mouth compared to patients not using acupuncture.