TCM and Cancer

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views cancer as a slowing or stoppage (stasis) in the flow of Substances in the body. In particular, cancer is understood to have underlying factors that allow cancer to develop.

For example, factors such as Qi Stasis, Blood Stasis, and Phlegm, are responsible for masses and abnormal cellular growth. These three types of stasis are thought to result from a variety of factors including emotional disharmony (which is said to cause stasis in the body), improper diet and exercise, and External Pathogenic Factors (which may remain in the body and cause stasis).

Traditional Chinese Medicine Categories of Cancer

The type of stasis underlying a TCM understanding of cancer depends upon signs and symptoms and the Zang Fu Organs affected. This stasis is then examined in terms of the body's overall energetic features and the state of the Zang Fu, the Substances, and the Meridians.

In terms of understanding the role of Stasis of the Fundamental Substances, patients with cancer tend to display the following:

  • Qi Stasis: Distending pain, a mass that seems to appear and disappear or change in size, easy frustration, and irritability or other emotional reactions. The tongue is a dusky color, and the pulse is wiry.
  • Blood Stasis: Sharp, stabbing pain and masses fixed in origin. The tongue has distended sublingual veins, and the pulse is choppy.
  • Phlegm: Soft masses, a subjective sensation of heaviness or sluggishness in the body, and expectoration of a copious amount of phlegm. The tongue has a greasy coating, and the pulse is slippery/wiry.

Because cancer may cause other disruptions in the body's energetics, these signs and symptoms may be subtle and may only give an indication of the TCM cause underlying the disease.

Traditional Chinese Medicine & Cancer Treatment Side Effects

While there is some preliminary evidence that the combined use of conventional medicine and TCM may extend the life of cancer patients, Traditional Chinese Medicine does not treat cancer effectively and should not be used as a primary treatment modality. Cancer patients who wish to use TCM along with conventional therapy should speak to their physicians and their TCM practitioner, so that a team approach to managing symptoms can be implemented.

TCM plays an auxiliary role in cancer treatment. It treats side effects of conventional therapies, helps control pain, and helps keep the immune system strong.

Many conventional therapies for cancer have side effects. For chemotherapy, common side effects include the following:

  • Nausea
  • Inflammation of the mucosa in the mouth and esophagus (stomatitis and esophagitis)
  • Fatigue
  • Low neutrophil (a type of white blood cell) count.

Common side effects of surgery are pain, discomfort, and lengthy recovery time. With radiation therapy, common side effects include inflammatory reactions in the areas being irradiated, dryness, thirst, and fatigue.

While new drugs and approaches are being developed to help overcome these side effects, TCM may provide useful complementary treatment by focusing on specific symptoms.

For example, a prostate cancer patient undergoing radiation therapy and suffering from burning urination and frequent nighttime urination (nocturia) is evaluated and treated for nocturia. In other words, while the underlying cause of cancer from a TCM perspective might be a combination of Blood Stasis and Phlegm, the role of TCM is to support conventional therapy and make the patient more comfortable by focusing on the cause of the nocturia. This ranges from a diagnosis of Damp Heat to Kidney Qi Deficiency.

Acupuncture & Cancer

Acupuncture is most effective in treating pain, fatigue, and nausea caused by oncology therapies. For pain, traditional points such as Large Intestine 4 (He Gu) and Stomach 44 (Nei Ting), which have analgesic effects, may be employed along with acupuncture points that specifically affect local areas or Meridians. Examples would include the use of Spleen 8 (Di Xi) for pain in the lower abdomen and Gallbladder 34 (Yang Ling Quan) for pain in the ribside.

Nausea may be treated effectively by the use of points such as Pericardium 6 (Nei Guan) with acupuncture needles, electrical stimulation, or massage. Fatigue may be treated with points such as Large Intestine 10 (Shou San Li) and Stomach 36 (Zu San Li). In all cases, a careful differential diagnosis should be undertaken.

Herbal Medicine & Cancer

Herbal medicine, like acupuncture, treats symptoms based on a careful differential diagnosis. Specific herbal substances may be used for particular conditions regardless of the overall energetic evaluation. For example, the herb Huang Qi (Astragalus) in sufficient dosages may help prevent fatigue and raise the neutrophil count to allow chemotherapy to continue. Herbs such as Sha Ren (Cardamom seeds) and Sheng Jiang (fresh ginger) are useful in preventing nausea. Herbs such as Ji Xue Teng (Caulis Ji Xue Teng) show a potent effect for raising white blood cell counts.

Qi Gong & Cancer

Qi Gong has repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness in strengthening the immune system; fighting fatigue, depression, and side effects of cancer treatments; and inducing a sense of well-being. Cancer patients undergoing oncological intervention should be encouraged to participate in Qi Gong exercises within their tolerance level, particularly in group practice sessions, to maintain a gentle exercise program and reduce stress and fatigue.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015