Acupuncture is a technique used in traditional Chinese medicine to help the body heal itself and Spire Washington Hospital is seeing some fantastic results with breast cancer patients, where acupuncture is being used to help relieve symptoms of the menopause brought on by their medical treatment.
Acupuncture involves stimulating parts of the body to release its natural chemicals – called Qi in Chinese medicine – which help to relieve pain.
Jo Wright, a former nurse who has been a traditional acupuncturist for 20 years, uses the alternative therapy to help breast cancer patients whose hormones have become unbalanced following treatment, leaving some women suffering from terrible hot flushes.
She said: “Hot flushes can be part of the natural menopause and they can be really awful for some people.
“With breast cancer, it is hard because you go through all the treatment and then this becomes an additional thing to deal with. When your hormones don’t flow as normal your symptoms are more extreme.
"After breast cancer the menopause can be a physical and psychological challenge. Many women feel they have changed overnight from a fully functioning person in the world into someone who struggles with day to day activities."
Jo looks closely at each patient to decide on the best treatment to help put their body back into balance and it is a very individual process.
“My training is in traditional Chinese medicine, where diagnosis looks at the whole picture. Although there are similarities with every lady, there are a whole variety of symptoms that vary according to the person, which is the beauty of a traditional approach ” said Jo.
“I look at the tongue, check the pulse and the pattern of symptoms to reach a diagnosis. Heat is always a problem so we look at how to help with that. It’s about using this therapy to get things working as naturally as possible. All I ever do is put the body back in balance.”
The symptoms of the menopause can be very dramatic in some women after breast cancer treatment. Sleep disruption due to hot sweats can wake a woman up to 10 times per night and require changing into dry clothes. Other symptoms are often related to the poor quality of sleep and some are a result of lack of oestrogen such as joint pain and dryness symptoms
“Once you have tipped so far, it is a spiral downwards – you wake up, and there is water all over you. It can be like your own body is torturing you. It’s a pattern of disharmony because you are out of kilter,” said Jo.
“Poor sleep quality can make someone feel incredibly tired, irritated and bad tempered. Some people have even lost their jobs because of their changeable behaviour.
“The good news is that acupuncture is a drug-free method of treating women – it’s not HRT or anti-depressants – and it can really help.
“Occasionally we do see the odd person who doesn’t respond but generally, we see hot flushes cut by 60-70 per cent, and in some cases, completely cleared.”
After an initial course of weekly treatments, patients go onto having maintenance treatments every four to six weeks, or when the seasons change because this is known to affect the condition as well.
Catherine Cranston, who also works at Spire Washington Hospital, has been one of Jo’s patients since May last year.
She said: “In March 2011, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was very lucky - I needed a small procedure, radiotherapy and was given a drug called Tamoxifen.
“However I also had gynaecological problems and I had my ovaries removed in December 2011. Following that, I went rapidly into the change. I started with hot flushes, temperatures and not sleeping.”
After putting up with her systems for around a year and a half, Catherine’s breast care nurse specialist suggested she try acupuncture.
“I was very sceptical and really didn’t fancy it,” said Catherine. “But it was getting difficult by that point so I decided to give it a go. To start with, I went for acupuncture weekly. I didn’t find much difference to begin with but after about three weeks I was sleeping better, I was better at work and I wasn’t having as many hot flushes.
“Since then my whole life has improved in leaps and bounds. I’m not having multiple hot flushes during a day and they have stopped getting me up at night.”
Jo discussed Catherine’s medical history with her at the first session before choosing the correct treatment. Because she had cancer on her left side, Catherine is treated on the right side of her body, down her arm, hand, knees, ankles and toes.
“The first time I went, Jo put the needle into the base of my neck and the top of my spine. I couldn’t feel a thing,” said Catherine.
“Then she ‘twiddled’ it, which brought on a hot flush and then she twiddled it again and that took the hot flush away. It was incredible and now I know what to expect, once the needles are in I just relax in a darkened room.”
Catherine had an initial six sessions and now has a half hour top up treatment every four to five weeks.
She said: “It was my very first time with an alternative treatment. I was very, very sceptical but it was getting to a point where the side effects of the menopause were starting to affect everything. I’m very grateful to the hospital for being so supportive and to Jo because this has really made a huge difference to my quality of life.”