There’s no doubt that conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy (radiation) can be lifesaving. Unfortunately, waging war on cancer comes with collateral damage. Many cancer survivors face reduced quality of life due to the side effects of their cancer treatment.
The fact is while modern medicine is well-equipped to go on the offensive with its strong treatments, it is less well suited for the gentler work of rebuilding a patient’s health after the battle is over. Thankfully, East Asian Medicine’s complementary toolkit is ideally suited for this restorative phase of healing.
Here we’ll look at three major modalities from East Asian Medicine, namely acupuncture, herbal medicine and dietary therapy, and the benefits they can provide to post-radiation patients in particular.
Understanding the Impact of Radiation
To understand the nature of radiotherapy, think of radiation’s most familiar form, sunlight. Too much sun makes for a painful, peeling or blistering sunburn. People exposed to nuclear radiation, such as those at Chernobyl, also develop severe burns.
Radiotherapy is different in its degree of intensity and in its specificity: the radiation is narrowly targeted to affect only certain tissues. In essence, however, we are dealing with the same phenomenon. Radiation is a hot-natured, scorching influence. And despite careful dosing and targeting by the radiotherapy technician, some degree of tissue damage (burns) is all but inevitable, along with such side effects as fatigue, hot flashes, dryness, loss of appetite, low blood cells counts, and an increased risk of future cancers.
Role of East Asian Medicine in Restorative Care
Rooted in the holistic philosophy of ancient China, Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) has always focused on patterns rather than particles. And while TEAM recognizes the role of pathogenic factors like viruses or malignant cancer cells, there is more emphasis on strengthening the host. In the context of TEAM cancer care, this is known as fu zheng, “supporting the righteous.” This refers to protecting and supporting the body’s own resources, as opposed to attacking pathogens only. Harsh or aggressive cancer treatments such as radiation only increase the need for this type of supportive therapy.
TEAM’s toolkit includes gentler methods that are well-suited to patients in a compromised or weakened condition. TEAM clinicians tend to be well-equipped for performing the kind of gentle, restorative care needed by post-radiation patients and cancer survivors in general.
Before we take a closer look at the specific TEAM therapies, let's take a moment to better understand the impact of radiation on the body and the kinds of therapeutic strategies that can mitigate that impact.
An East Asian Medical Perspective on the Impact of Radiation
In the language of East Asian medicine, radiation is a form of “toxic heat.”
We know that from a biomedical perspective, radiation triggers DNA damage and creates damaging “free radical” compounds called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). Even after radiotherapy is over, these ROS continue to simmer away in the tissues, inflicting damage at a molecular level.
Thus, mitigating radiation side effects and restoring health post radiation involves cooling the flames, soothing scorched tissues and replenishing yin fluids.
Acupuncture as Post-Radiation Restorative Care
Although the idea of inserting needles into the body may sound harsh or unpleasant, acupuncture can be amazingly gentle and relaxing. Fine, hair-like needles are used to stimulate precise points on the body, sending signals to the organs. Although the theory of acupuncture is too complex to get into here, the process amounts to a kind of tuning of the system, somewhat like tuning an instrument.
Acupuncture can be used to adjust the body’s thermostat, humidity, and other core parameters. Certain combinations of points turn the heat up. Others bring it down. A well-chosen acupuncture treatment can cool what’s hot, moisten what’s dry, and build up what’s worn down—exactly what’s called for in a post-radiation situation.
Results can include skin healing, decrease in pain, recovery of appetite, and improved white blood cell counts. In the case of Lung cancer in particular, acupuncture has been shown to effectively prevent radiation pneumonitis, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the lungs.
Benefits from acupuncture may start to be felt after just one treatment, or in some cases it can take several treatments to gain noticeable traction. However, as I always instruct my patients, one should not have to take acupuncture on faith. If marked results are not forthcoming, it’s time to re-evaluate the treatment strategy.
Herbal Medicine as Post-Radiation Restorative Care
East Asian Medicine works with hundreds of herbs and other medicinals substances, combining them in countless ways depending on the situation. Post-radiation, there is typically a need to clear heat and nourish yin fluids, as discussed above; with radiation to the upper body, xerostomia (dry mouth) is common and has been shown to be treatable by TEAM herbal approaches.
One formula that’s often applicable under the circumstances is called Zhu Ye Shi Gao Tang (Bamboo Leaf and Gypsum Decoction). Originally intended for patients recovering from an intense febrile illness, with lingering low-grade fever, strong thirst and nausea, this remedy is also highly suitable for the classic post-radiation patient, especially in the early stages of recovery, and especially when upper areas of the body (e.g. chest, throat)
have been impacted by radiation.
The single herb huzhang (Japanese knotweed root) also has many desirable properties in post-radiation treatment. Huzhang clears toxic heat, protects against burns and free radical damage, helps reverse leukopenia (low white blood cell counts) caused by radiation or chemo, and has been shown to have direct anti-cancer effects. Huzhang may be of benefit on its own in some cases, but as with most medicinal substances, huzhang is best used in the context of an individually-tailored herbal formula.
Once the flames have subsided and the heat has simmered down, there is still a need to rebuild and replenish at a deep level in most cases. At this stage, tonic or supplementing formulas can be used. Herbal remedies like Ba Zhen Tang (Eight Treasures Decoction) are generally in the right ballpark for this phase of healing. However, for best results the individual’s constitution and specific situation must be considered.
Dietary Therapy for Post-Radiation Restoration
Food is the original medicine, and every meal is an opportunity to support balance and harmony in the body; during and after radiation treatment is no exception.
Since digestion is often weakened and appetite low following radiation, simple and easy to digest foods are best. And since dryness is a factor, moist and hydrating foods are appropriate.
One dish that check both boxes is congee, a traditional Chinese rice soup made with approximately 8-10 parts water to one part white rice. Additions such as jujube (red date), goji berries and fresh ginger make the congee tasty, support digestion and help nourish yin.
The Ayurvedic dish khichari is another excellent option. Made with long grain rice and mung dal (split mung beans) together with vegetables, spices and ghee (clarified butter), khichari is both nourishing and light on the belly. It nourishes without tying up the body’s resources in digesting something heavy.
After a few days of favoring such light foods, the post-radiation patient will likely notice an increase in appetite and a desire for more variety. One can add cooked vegetables, fish or white meat to the congee, and then introduce a more normal, wholesome diet of vegetables, grains and potentially some meat soup for deep nourishment. Pears, cucumbers and coconut are especially cooling and nourishing additions.
Drink plenty of fluids, including thick and nourishing liquids such as almond milk or oat milk. However, it’s best to avoid iced drinks, as these harm digestion and divert the body's resources away from the necessary healing.
During radiation therapy and in the weeks following, it’s best to avoid fried food, barbecue, heavy meat and alcohol, all of which can have a heating effect. Avoid processed food with its additives and preservatives, and be cautious with spicy or hot-natured foods such as garlic, chilies and lamb.
East Asian Medicine is perfectly suited to supporting patients in the aftermath of strong or harsh treatments such as radiotherapy (radiation). As we’ve seen, modalities such as acupuncture, herbal medicine and dietary therapy can all play a role in supporting a seamless and full recovery.
Of course, there is no need to wait until after radiation therapy is over to begin enjoying the effects of these gentle but powerful techniques. TEAM is equipped to sustain health in a variety of situations and can even be used to treat cancer more directly—but that's a topic for another post.
Jonathan H Edwards, MS, LAc. is an acupuncturist and Traditional East Asian Medicine practitioner who works with patients in the North Carolina Triangle area and remotely across the United States.