Treating cancer with Oriental medicine (part 1)


Noth­ing brings a quick­er aware­ness of the fra­gil­ity of life to a patient than hear­ing the word can­cer in a med­ic­al set­ting. It brings to mind a night­mar­ish vis­ion of the body being slowly eaten away from the inside. Can­cer occurs when the body’s micro­scop­ic build­ing blocks, “the cells” start to repro­duce them­selves abnor­mally. As these defect­ive cells spread, the func­tions of the organs they invade are gradu­ally des­troyed. Remark­able pro­gress has been made in the field of med­ic­al sci­ence since the 1950s when that dis­ease was first dis­covered. Today, West­ern medi­cine can achieve a level of suc­cess against cer­tain forms of can­cer which would have been unthink­able only a dec­ade ago. But its accom­plish­ment has come as a price, the chem­ic­al and sur­gic­al approach being used can exert an enorm­ous toll on the mind, and body of the suf­fer­ers.

Ori­ent­al medi­cine hasn’t got such a power­ful arsen­al at its dis­pos­al, so its strength lays else­where. Its approach to ther­apy is gentler and slower act­ing, but it is hol­ist­ic, so the mind and the body, of the patient are treated togeth­er. Also, the risks of side effects are elim­in­ated. This makes it per­fectly designed to com­ple­ment West­ern medi­cine in help­ing the body recov­er from the life-threat­en­ing dis­ease.

In Occi­dent­al medi­cine, the most com­mon form of treat­ment for can­cer is called chemo­ther­apy, which is the use of highly tox­ic chem­ic­als to kill the can­cer cells. These power­ful weapons can be very effect­ive in erad­ic­at­ing the can­cer cells. Unfor­tu­nately, they are also very tox­ic to nor­mal cells. In many ways, the west­ern med­ic­al approach is akin to spray­ing pesti­cides in a garden to erad­ic­ate the weeds, with the hope that the sur­round­ing flowers will be strong enough to sur­vive the assault. Chemo­ther­apy kills the immune cells, so patients are at risk of dying from weak forms of infec­tions which would not harm them oth­er­wise. It kills the cells lin­ing the digest­ive tract, thus pre­vent­ing the absorp­tion of nutri­ents. This makes the patient even weak­er. To deal with these side effects, more med­ic­a­tion is giv­en which in turn cre­ates more side effects, which have to be treated with more chem­ic­als. In some cases, the can­cer treat­ments have to cease abruptly, when the patient’s body is simply not strong enough to sur­vive the chem­ic­al assault.

While Chinese medi­cine is prob­ably not cap­able of elim­in­at­ing can­cer by itself, it can bring immense bene­fits in many dif­fer­ent ways

For example, the can­cer patient is often suf­fer­ing from pain, from can­cer itself, or in later stages, from the sur­gery. In Chinese medi­cine term, the pain occurs as a res­ult of a block­age of energy (Qi) in the chan­nel. Acu­punc­ture can help the patient to relax, and it will stim­u­late the flow of Qi to relieve the pain, without the use of chem­ic­al drugs. While there is still some con­tro­versy regard­ing how acu­punc­ture actu­ally works, recent research has shown that the anal­ges­ic effect of acu­punc­ture is prob­ably due to the pro­duc­tion of nat­ur­al opioids (beta-endorph­in, and met-enkeph­al­in ) being stim­u­lated  in the body by the needles( Cohen et al. Integ­rat­ive Can­cer Ther­apies, 2005;4(2):131–43)

Being dia­gnosed with a life-threat­en­ing dis­ease is an incred­ibly stress­ful exper­i­ence. .As we know, stress can fur­ther weak­en the already depleted immune sys­tem of the suf­fer­er. Chinese medi­cine can not only help the patient relax and cope bet­ter with the stress, but it has a rare abil­ity to boost the immune sys­tem. This was demon­strated in 2007 when research­ers in Japan com­pared the level of immune cells (leu­co­cytes) in patients before and after receiv­ing acu­punc­ture. Their records showed a sig­ni­fic­ant increase in the num­ber, and in cer­tain key com­pon­ents of these immune cells.( Yamagu­chi .et al. Evid­ence-Based Com­ple­ment­ary and Altern­at­ive Medi­cine. Dec 2007).

Anoth­er crit­ic­al aspect of the West­ern med­ic­al treat­ment of can­cer is that its remark­able efforts are tar­geted at the dis­ease alone, so there is little focus on the patient him­self who is suf­fer­ing.

West­ern medi­cine is highly spe­cial­ized, and the patient has to move from one sec­tion of a hos­pit­al to the next, being treated by sev­er­al spe­cial­ists, each one highly know­ledge­able in their own field of expert­ise, but focus­ing on only a spe­cif­ic aspect of their illness.Often the can­cer patient has to go through a har­row­ing emo­tion­al jour­ney from the time of the dia­gnos­is, being passed around from the onco­lo­gist, to the endo­crino­lo­gist, to the pain clin­ic, to the coun­selor if they are depressed, or to the immun­o­lo­gist if they struggle to recov­er. In the won­der­ful book Tra­di­tion­al Chinese Medi­cine approach to Can­cer, by Henry McGrath (2009), the author argues that “ the very nature of west­ern medi­cine is not to treat the per­son, but to treat the dis­ease”.

As an example, he explains that when con­trolled tri­als are run to demon­strate the effic­acy of a new drug on redu­cing the size of a can­cer tumor, no attempt is made to take into account caus­ing factors such as liv­er mal­func­tion, blood dis­orders, digest­ive prob­lems, or emo­tion­al factors.

In con­trast, in Chinese medi­cine, all the indi­vidu­al aspect of a patient’s health is taken into account. This will be the focus of our next art­icle on this fas­cin­at­ing top­ic.


Olivi­er Lejus MHSc.BHSc. is a registered acu­punc­tur­ist prac­ti­cing in Sydney.

About Olivier Lejus

I was born in France and I emigrated to Australia in 1980. I worked as a circus performer, puppeteer and actor before I began studying Traditional Chinese Medicine a the University of Technology of Sydney in 1997. I graduated in 2000 with a Bachelor of of science degree in Traditional Chinese medicine. I am now specializing in Japanese style acupuncture for the treatment of female and male infertility, pain, and anxiety.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *