A Little Daylight

by Rick DeTroye, LAc, MAcOM

A Little Daylight,

If you're not experiencing cancer, it's difficult to imagine what it's like to have it. I realized that recently while treating someone going through chemotherapy. As an acupuncturist who's treated people with cancer, I hate to admit that. I understand what it's like to have joint pain, sciatica and headaches - I have those. I know what it's like to feel abdominal pain, to have a sinus infection and to have sleepless nights - I've been through all of that. Cancer, I think, is a whole different thing and living with the disease is unlike other challenges we might face.

In my early years, I had very little awareness of cancer, at least in a direct sense. I remember hearing my parents and grandparents talk about people they knew who had cancer, but I had no concept of its personal impact and I didn't give it much thought. At some point, however, cancer started to creep into my life. I graduated from Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in 1998, and within five years of graduating, three of my classmates developed cancer. A couple years after that my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Little by little, I discovered more people in my life dealing with cancer. This past year, my mom had a recurrence of the disease and a number of other friends and patients were diagnosed with it. I can see effect that it's had on all of these people.

Someone who's been diagnosed with cancer is in a difficult position and for many reasons. They have to act quickly (often within days) and make decisions about treatments that they know very little about. They're in shock, they're angry, they're scared, they're confused, they're in denial, they're stressed out. They're experiencing a multitude of emotions. They've received their diagnosis, have talked with their oncologist and have a vague idea of what they're in for. They've heard stories about or talked with other people who've had cancer. They're scheduled for surgery, chemo and/or radiation. Usually, if they contact me, they're seeking relief from fatigue, pain, nausea and vomiting that they're experiencing while undergoing chemo or radiation. My job, as I see it, is to ease their discomfort and offer them a bit of "daylight", a little more breathing room.

Tran Viet Dzung is a well-known and respected French-Vietnamese surgeon and acupuncturist. His approach to cancer emphasizes what he calls "treating the Mental". "The Mental" refers to the psychological and emotional aspects of a person, including their stress response and, for lack of a better description, their spirit. Dr. Tran feels that supporting these aspects is the most important thing we can do for someone with cancer. When mind, emotions and spirit are out of balance, their ability to fight cancer will be diminished. It's well documented that if a person is chronically stressed, their immune system will be weakened. A battle with cancer is, if nothing else, very stressful. At a time when a person needs to rally their immune system and have it working at peak efficiency, they're instead having to deal with upheavals in their life, body and psyche. That type of stress can be very taxing on the immune system.

One of the beauties of Chinese medicine is its ability to provide treatment for physical symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Another is its calming effects on the mind and emotions. When acupuncture needles are inserted, a sort of chain reaction takes place in the body. Muscles begin to soften, the breathing deepens, the stomach and intestines begin to gurgle, eyes get heavy and often the person being treated falls into a light sleep. It's a restful and restorative state to be in, an opportunity to de-stress and to coax the body back toward a state of improved physiological function. It's also a chance to spend time away from the world of cancer. That's a good thing.

Last week I needed to check on insurance benefits for someone who's going through chemo. I was a little apprehensive about calling this particular insurance company because they're what I would describe as "conservative" in their coverage for acupuncture, meaning that they don't cover much. I was surprised to see that of the limited conditions they approve for acupuncture (only two), the side effects of chemo (i.e., nausea and vomiting) was one of them. I realized then that acupuncture's ability to treat these side effects is being taken more seriously and that even the most reluctant of insurance companies are taking note of it. This is strong acknowledgement of acupuncture's effectiveness and it's important role in cancer treatment. It's also great news for people fighting the disease.

Ultimately, only someone who's living with cancer can understand what it's like to have it. As an acupuncturist, I'm here to provide treatment and support for them during their illness. When they come in for acupuncture ashen-faced, fatigued and nauseous, and they leave my office with color in their cheeks, feeling rested and able to eat, I can appreciate how powerful this medicine is. When they make it through chemo or radiation with a minimum of side effects and with the hope that there are better days ahead, I know my efforts have helped. In the end, acupuncture is a small, but reassuring offer of daylight that can make a positive difference during their treatment and recovery.