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A large-scale clinical trial has shown for the first time that acupuncture is effective in treating fatigue in former breast cancer patients. Fatigue affects hundreds of thousands of former cancer patients in the UK following their treatment, making it a huge health concern. The results are published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
The trial, funded by Breakthrough Breast Cancer, with substantial support from Walk The Walk, showed that acupuncture had across-the-board benefits, alleviating both mental and physical fatigue and improving overall quality of life. The three-year trial, led by the University of Manchester, was carried out on over 300 patients and conducted at ten hospitals and support centres across the country.
Fatigue affects up to 40% of former breast cancer patients, with few recognised treatments available. It can have a severe impact on quality of life, with mental and physical fatigue causing a range of problems from depression and memory loss to a severe lack of energy. These symptoms can in turn mean sufferers are unable to return to work, participate in social activities or even enjoy watching the television.
Professor Alex Molassiotis, from the University of Manchester, who led the trial said: “Fatigue is a blight on the lives of thousands of former cancer patients and this trial proves acupuncture can help them. We were delighted to see so many patients getting substantial benefit from this treatment, particularly as they currently have limited options available.
“We now need to carry out further work to understand the costs and benefits of delivering acupuncture before it can be made available on the NHS.”
Julie Wray, 55, a mother-of-two from Cheadle, Cheshire, benefited from the acupuncture treatment after suffering fatigue as a result of her breast cancer treatment in 2006.
Mrs Wray, a nursing lecturer at the University of Salford, said: “The fatigue from my breast cancer treatment was so bad simply driving to work left me exhausted. It got to the point that I thought I would have to give up my job. But receiving acupuncture treatment allowed me to get my old life back. Now I hope other women can benefit from acupuncture following this research.”
Of the 302 patients in the trial, 227 were given weekly acupuncture sessions, with follow-up checks for another 18 weeks; 75 were given normal care. Patients given acupuncture had suffered from fatigue for an average of 15 months. They were then assessed for physical and mental fatigue, activity, motivation, anxiety, depression and quality of life. Under all of these assessments, acupuncture was shown to have significant benefits. While the researchers acknowledge a placebo effect was possible, they believe the results are too significant to be viewed as a result of any potential placebo effect alone.
Acupuncture is a complementary or traditional medicine which has been used in China for hundreds of years. Its use in mainstream healthcare in the UK is still in its infancy, with it only being used on the NHS to treat lower back pain. The authors call for clinical trials to be set up looking at the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture, particularly weighed against reduced costs to society and the NHS of those suffering significant and protracted fatigue after cancer treatment. The benefits should also be investigated for other cancer types, the authors argue.
Dr Julia Wilson, Head of Research at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: “More people are surviving breast cancer than ever before which means quality of life after treatment is becoming increasingly important. These are very promising results which suggest acupuncture could reduce fatigue symptoms and improve the quality of life of many former breast cancer patients.
“It raises the possibility that acupuncture could become a standard treatment for fatigue, although we are still some years from that becoming a reality.”
Patients in the Acu Fatigue Trial came from The Christie Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; Royal Oldham Hospital; North Manchester General Hospital; Royal Lancaster Infirmary; Furness General Hospital; The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust (London and Sutton, Surrey); Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust; Breast Cancer Haven (London, Leeds and Hereford); Beechwood Cancer Care, Manchester; Blythe House, Derbyshire.