It’s not surprising a majority of women with breast cancer report feeling exhausted. In addition to the sleep-robbing stress of knowing you have the disease, side effects of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy often cause fatigue.
But after breast cancer patients have been declared disease-free and are through with treatments, extreme tiredness may linger. The National Cancer Institute points out this persistent fatigue can last for months and even years, interfering with quality of life. In fact, about a third of breast cancer survivors report feeling unduly tired up to a decade after successful treatment for their disease.
Research from the University of Michigan concludes there’s a non-drug treatment that can help relieve post cancer-treatment fatigue — acupressure, the non-invasive body treatment long used in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupressure involves using thumbs, fingers, or a device to apply firm but gentle pressure on specific points on the body associated with various organs or conditions.
The research team recruited 424 breast cancer survivors from the Michigan Tumor Registry and divided them up into three groups. One group received a form of acupressure that focuses on specific points in the body traditionally used to produce relaxation and treat insomnia. Another group received acupressure using different pressure points linked to feeling more energetic. The third group was treated with regular care, including standard sleep-management strategies, instead of acupressure.
The women in the two acupressure groups were taught to administer their own therapy. After just 15 minutes of DIY acupressure training, the volunteers were able to accurately locate acupressure points on their bodies and apply the correct amount of pressure to stimulate these areas. The women performed DIY acupressure on themselves at home once daily for six weeks. The only side effect reported by some of the study participants was minor bruising at the acupressure points.
At the end of the study, the breast cancer survivors who received DIY acupressure treatments had significant improvements in fatigue — and the feeling their ongoing tiredness had finally lifted was sustained. In all, acupressure reduced fatigue by 27 percent to 34 percent over the course of six weeks.
Two-thirds of women who used pressure points associated with relaxation achieved what the researchers called normal fatigue levels — the kind of tiredness almost everyone feels once in a while compared to the unusual and ongoing tiredness the breast cancer survivors had experienced before their acupressure treatment. Only the relaxation acupressure group experienced improved sleep quality and less disrupted sleep.
Previous studies found acupuncture might curb fatigue, too. However, the researchers pointed out acupuncture is often not covered by insurance and typically requires people to receive treatment once or twice a week for at least six weeks. Acupressure, on the other hand, has the advantage of being self-administered at no cost.
"Fatigue is an underappreciated symptom across a lot of chronic diseases, especially cancer. It has a significant impact on quality of life,” said Suzanna Zick, ND, associate research professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan, who headed the study. “Acupressure is easy to learn and patients can do it themselves. Given the brief training required to learn acupressure, this intervention could be a low-cost option for treating fatigue.”
Zick and her colleagues are developing an app to teach acupressure. They are also investigating how acupressure relieves fatigue. They plan to study whether acupressure can help reduce fatigue in patients during treatment for breast and other cancers, too.
The American Cancer Society offers information and tips on coping with cancer-related fatigue, including unusual tiredness that lingers after chemo, radiation, and surgeries end.
October 26, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN