When George Stilphen, executive director of Keep Winston-Salem Beautiful, was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in December 2014, he knew he was facing a long road to recovery — but he couldn’t have known how difficult it would be to walk that road.

After undergoing major surgery to remove part of his colon and 21 lymph nodes, Stilphen began his oncologist-recommended chemotherapy. The good news? These treatments were successful — in fact, as of May 2022, he’s still cancer free.

Not so good: While the chemotherapy destroyed the cancer cells, it also caused nerve damage, resulting in excruciating neuropathy in both of his feet. The symptoms ranged from numbness to throbbing pain.

The severity of his symptoms made it difficult for Stilphen to walk or perform other daily activities. Sometimes he could hardly bear to wear shoes. The neuropathy also affected his ability to pursue his passion for the culinary arts — including teaching classes that require him to be on his feet.

“For four years I took medication to try to alleviate the neuropathy, but it did absolutely nothing,” he said. “So my oncologist suggested we try acupuncture. At that point, I was ready to try anything, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”

Stilphen began seeing Sarah Girard, a licensed acupuncturist at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Kimel Park in Winston-Salem, in September 2021. And it made a world of difference.

“George responded quickly, after just one treatment,” Girard said. “And his improvement has been pretty dramatic.”

Fifteen sessions later, he can once again feel his feet. The throbbing and pain have nearly disappeared, leaving behind only a mild tingling sensation.

“The treatments with Sarah have allowed me to get back to my normal activities, to go hiking and do all the things I couldn’t do with the neuropathy,” he said. “I even finished a 5K. Acupuncture has changed my life tremendously.”

Dealing with cancer symptoms and cancer-treatment side effects? Acupuncture can offer much-needed relief.

Pain. Nausea. Fatigue. These and other symptoms and side effects are a source of dread among people facing cancer and those undergoing cancer treatment.

While pharmaceutical options are available — including opioid painkillers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin and ibuprofen), and even certain antidepressants — many people fear addiction and other unpleasant drug side effects. In other cases, those options don’t provide relief.

Fortunately, complementary therapies like acupuncture, which can help ease the burden of physical and emotional suffering without fear of drug side effects, are increasingly accepted and available. In fact, mounting evidence shows that acupuncture can be a valuable complementary therapy for a variety of cancer-related symptoms and treatment side effects.

At Novant Health Integrative Medicine, the word “complementary” refers to treatments that are used in tandem with traditional cancer treatments, such as medication, surgery, chemo and radiation, not as an “alternative” treatment

What is acupuncture?

A component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a medical system that has been used for thousands of years to prevent, diagnose and treat disease. It involves inserting thin needles (slightly thicker than a human hair) into specific “acupoints.”

In this way, practitioners can help regulate, channel and balance the body’s vital energy (chi or qi, pronounced CHEE) to promote spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health. This is based on the concept that, when qi energy is flowing regularly, we are likely to feel better and be healthier, while obstructed or imbalanced qi could leave us vulnerable to illness, pain and other concerns.

What cancer- and cancer-treatment related symptoms does it help?

Acupuncture is an increasingly popular complementary therapy for cancer symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments, including:

  • Post-surgical, cancer-related and other pain.
  • Digestive issues, such as lack of appetite, acid reflux, nausea/vomiting, constipation and diarrhea.
  • Emotional upset, stress, depression/anxiety and anger or frustration.
  • Neuropathy, particularly in the hands and feet.
  • Fatigue and sleep problems.
  • Hot flashes and menopausal symptoms, often surgically or treatment-induced in breast and uro-genital cancers.

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People undergoing treatment for cancer seem to experience fewer and less severe side effects when they have acupuncture compared to those who do not.

Also, the fact that it is a nonpharmaceutical treatment is also beneficial for people going through chemotherapy and radiation, whose bodies are already coping with chemicals and toxins, said Sarah Girard, a licensed acupuncturist at Novant Health Cancer Institute - Kimel Park in Winston-Salem.

“People who are actively going through cancer treatments will likely need weekly treatments, or even twice-weekly If their symptoms are extreme,” she said. “The frequency of chemo and radiation treatments will also determine how often acupuncture may be needed.”

What happens during an acupuncture treatment?

Acupuncture treatments take place in a relaxing spa-like environment, either individually or in group areas where several patients are treated at the same time.

During a treatment, the acupuncturist inserts thin sterile, disposable stainless steel needles into the skin at precise acupoints, chosen according to the problem being treated. Because they are much finer than hypodermic needles, the process causes very little to no pain.

Then, the patient can then relax for 30 to 45 minutes, when the needles are removed. Many people report feeling especially relaxed while the needles are doing their work. And while some experience tingling, warmth or numbness, others feel nothing at all.

How long does it take to see benefits — and how long do they last?

Certain individuals may see results after their first session, but four to six sessions are commonly needed before noticing significant changes.

The benefits of acupuncture are cumulative, Girard said. For example, a person may experience pain relief for two days after the first treatment. After the second treatment, the relief may last four to five days — and when the pain returns, it is often less severe. As treatments progress, the pain may almost entirely disappear.

“Patients’ overall health also affects how long-lasting relief from acupuncture will be,” she said. “As can their diet and lifestyle. People who eat more whole foods and do regular, gentle exercise tend to experience longer relief.

George Stilphen receives acupuncture from Sarah Girard

Does acupuncture have any side-effects?

Acupuncture provided by well-trained practitioners is generally well tolerated and is associated with few complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While uncommon, possible side effects could include:

  • Soreness or pain during the actual treatment.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Fatigue or tiredness.
  • Infection.

To prevent infections the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires acupuncture needles to be manufactured according to single-use standards of sterility, like hypodermic syringes and other medical devices.

“Acupuncture is a very forgiving modality, though and side effects are rare,” Girard said. “In fact, many people say there are side benefits.”

Among the ‘side benefits’ her patients experience are:

  • Feeling less stressed, and more able to cope with life.
  • Finding they have more stamina, and can do more exercise.
  • Having fewer cravings for unhealthy foods.

“Oftentimes, when someone whose main concern was pain returns after a couple of treatments, they tell me they’re sleeping more soundly or have fewer digestive problems,” she said. “It’s really common to hear them say, ‘I just feel better — I can’t explain it!’”

Note: While acupuncture is generally safe, there are cautions for some patients (e.g., those with bleeding problems or low white-blood cell counts). Before starting acupuncture treatments, talk to your healthcare provider and be sure to give your acupuncturist a complete medical history.