May 2, 2005

Michigan, New York Researchers Examine Acupuncture for Hot Flashes in Breast Cancer Patients

By Editorial Staff

Acupuncturists and medical doctors in New York and Michigan are conducting a series of studies to determine whether acupuncture can cure hot flashes caused by commonly used treatments for breast cancer.

Should acupuncture prove effective, the researchers hope it can be used to treat other problems that may be caused by traditional cancer treatments.

"Patients are tired of taking drugs with side-effects," said Dr. Eleanor Walker, a radiation oncologist at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, and the principal investigator of the Michigan study. According to Dr. Walker, the most common treatments for the prevention of recurring breast cancer are chemotherapy sessions and drugs such as tamoxifen. Unfortunately, these treatments cause hot flashes - often severe enough to be considered debilitating - in up to two-thirds of the women who take them.

The study is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and is expected to run through September 2006. To be eligible, women must currently be taking tamoxifen or have completed chemotherapy, and have at least 14 hot flashes a week. Patients who qualify will receive either acupuncture or effexor, an antidepressant that has been found effective in reducing hot flashes. Women in the acupuncture group will be treated twice a week for two weeks, then once a week for eight weeks, with each treatment session lasting approximately 15 minutes.

Collaborating on the research with Dr. Walker is Elizabeth Kohn, LAc, who practices at the Ford Center for Integrative Medicine in nearby Novi, Michigan. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Kohn said she has treated patients with hot flashes caused by menopause, with good results.

"Acupuncture may be considered a new treatment in this culture, but it's actually a 4,000-year-old medicine," Kohn said.

In New York, meanwhile, Dr. Barrie Cassileth and a team of colleagues at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer's Integrative Medicine Service are conducting a separate study on breast cancer patients, with subjects receiving either true acupuncture or a type of sham treatment. Patients must have been treated for breast cancer previously, and must be suffering from an average of three or more hot flashes per day to be eligible for enrollment.

Participants in this study will be randomly assigned to receive eight sessions of either real or placebo acupuncture over four weeks. Participants will monitor their hot flashes in a diary that will be analyzed 6, 13, and 26 weeks after the start of the study. The frequency and severity of hot flashes will be measured; at the end of four weeks, participants in the placebo group will be offered real acupuncture.

According to Dr. Cassileth, acupuncture "seems to be pretty effective" for a variety of cancer-related problems such as chronic fatigue, dry mouth and post-surgical pain.

"The evidence is fairly strong for a number of indications, especially pain," said Cassileth. "But we need more randomized trials."

Although both trials are still recruiting patients, and the results of the research will not be known for several months (or years), some participants have already commented on the relief acupuncture has brought them.

Marie Lockhart, a 44-year-old hospital worker from Southfield, Michigan, began a five-year course of tamoxifen in 2003, following diagnosis and treatment of an early-stage breast tumor. While on tamoxifen, she averaged between eight and 12 hot flashes per day. "I was sweating all day," she told the Free Press.

Lockhart enrolled in the study in October 2004, and finished her acupuncture treatments in late December. Since beginning treatment, she has returned to work, and now averages only two hot flashes per day.

"I go to work happy, calm, focused," she said. "So far, so good."

  1. Anstett P. An ancient practice meets modern medicine. Detroit Free Press, February 15, 2005.
  2. Acupuncture for the treatment of hot flashes in breast cancer patients. Available at


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