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Integrating Chinese Medicine and Oncology

Chinese medicine has recognized the existence of cancer (liu) since around 1600 BC. Detailed descriptions of various types of cancer were recorded from around 200 BC. Since that time, various medical strategies have evolved to manage cancer, including surgical operations, herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, exercises and dietary recommendations (2).

In conventional Western Medicine, cancer is viewed solely from a somatic point of view as a clone of cells which have outgrown their environmental constraints and control mechanisms. These cells are abnormal and considered to be foreign to the body. The main philosophy of cancer treatment is direct annihilation of the cancer cells using aggressive and destructive treatments.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cancer is viewed as only a part of the presenting features of a syndrome representing an imbalance in the whole body-mind network. In other words, cancer is a systematic disease from the start and the terrain is considered to be as important as the tumor itself. It is believed that if one can strengthen and rebalance the body-mind network, the normal pattern will be restored. In addition, the deeper reasons of why the cancer developed are also explored, and an attempt is made to address these ´causes´ or issues in order to minimize the risk of reoccurrence (1).

In modern Chinese hospitals, cancer patients are offered treatments such as herbal medicine and acupuncture, alongside radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery. This integrated approach means that, as well as attacking the cancer directly, the patient´s overall health and vitality are largely maintained. Attention is given to ensuring that the digestive system, liver function, kidney function, immune function and emotional state are maintained at optimum levels in order to strengthen the person in their fight against cancer. Often these systems are weakened by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, so it is the task of the traditional Chinese medicine therapist to deal with, and even pre-empt, the side effects of these interventions (2).


In TCM one of the main aspects that needs to be addressed is Qi (vital force or energy). If one has strong qi, one is healthy but if person´s qi is weak, he/she is prone to illness. Acupuncture is very effective at strengthening and restoring the proper flow of qi, balancing emotional state and therefore assisting in healing and recovery. It offers many benefits to patients in terms of managing the symptoms that are associated with traditional cancer therapies:

Pain Management: Acupuncture helps to manage pain related to tumors, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and inflammation. Cancer itself is a painful disease and the treatments for cancer cause pain, swelling and inflammation.

Immune System Modulation: Many cancers and cancer treatments cause a suppression of the bone marrow, the source of blood cells that are the army of the immune system. Acupuncture increases blood cell production and enhances Natural Killer Cells and Lymphocytes which leads to increased immune response and decreased risk of infection.

Inflammation: Increased inflammation is a part of the physiology of cancer. Many of the treatments for cancer such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery also cause painful inflammation. Acupuncture reduces the pain and swelling related to inflammation.

Nausea and Vomiting: Acupuncture has been shown to reduce the intensity and frequency of nausea and vomiting in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

Dry, Painful Mouth and Throat: Cancer patients receiving radiation to the neck or head may experience dry mouth (xerostomia) due to the reduction in saliva production and difficulty swallowing. These patients often lose their sense of taste as well. Acupuncture has been shown to decrease these side effects allowing the patient to be able to swallow, eat and drink normally and reduce the incidence of infections, pain and swelling in the mouth and throat during radiation therapy.

Sleep: Some cancer patients suffer sleep disruption and insomnia due to post-surgical discomfort, anxiety and depression and physical pain. By relieving these symptoms the cancer patient is able to get the deep sleep and rest required for recovery and healing.

Hot Flashes: in Breast Cancer Patients: Many women undergoing hormonal treatment for breast cancer experience hot flashes that disrupt sleep and activities of daily living. Acupuncture has been shown to decrease the frequency and intensity of hot flashes for breast cancer patients.

Quality of Life: By managing the side effects of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapies, reducing pain and inflammation, improving sleep, supporting normal digestive function and reducing stress the quality of life of cancer patients is greatly improved by acupuncture treatments (3).

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is often utilized in TCM alongside the acupuncture in cancer treatments. Herbs are selected depending on the type of cancer, constitution of the individual and the phase of the treatment. Rather than just relying on attacking the cancer directly, Chinese medicine always tries to help the body become stronger so it can fight the cancer itself.

A single herb or a combination of few might be used to enhance effectiveness of cancer treatments (some of the herbs have been identified as possessing anti tumor activity), enhancing immunity and aiding in maintaining liver, kidney and digestive functions. For instance, medicinal mushrooms such as Ganoderma, Cordyceps and Shittake are shown to have immune boosting and anti-tumor activity and often are used in oncology patients. Another herb with potent immune-stimulating properties is Astragalus (2).

Unlike chemotherapy, herbs (if prescribed by a properly qualified therapist) do not harm normal cells and can be taken long term to help prevent the recurrence of cancer once it has been treated with conventional methods. Certain herbs can also be used to minimize side affects of conventional cancer treatments such as; nausea, poor sleep, constipation, anxiety, pain and inflammation.

The role of the spirit

Emotions have a profound effect on the flow of qi. While the emotions are part of a healthy, normal life, they can get out of hand and become over dominant causing physical illness. In Chinese medicine, each emotion influences a certain organ. For example, anger damages the liver, grief harms the lungs, and worry harms the digestive system. Prolonged emotional problems can cause the qi to become weakened or stagnant, thus contributing to the development of some types of cancers (2).

Chinese medicine encourages and helps to maintain healthy and balanced state of mind. Along with acupuncture, other forms of healing might be suggested such as meditation, qi gong or healing intent through prayer.


TCM emphasizes appropriate nutrition according to specific constitution and disease pattern. Some foods feed cancer and some foods help to heal. The distinctive aspect of the Chinese approach is that one´s ideal diet depends totally on one´s diagnosis. There is no one size fits all - the diet is tailored for each individual person. In most cases, dietary changes are crucial in fight against cancer and during the recovery phase.

TCM can be easily and efficiently integrated into Western Medicine treatments for oncology patients. Not only does it help to address the side effects of conventional cancer therapies, it also supports a person’s physical, mental and emotional strength and well being, which together plays a very important role in healing and prevention.


  • R.Wong, C.M.Sagar, S.M.Sagar. Integration of Chinese Medicine into supportive cancer care: A modern role for an ancient tradition. Cancer treatment reviews 2001.

  • Henry McGrath. Traditional Chinese Medicine approaches to cancer.

  • Dr Nalini Chilkov. Can acupuncture treatments help cancer patients?

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