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Here's a Promising Way to Treat Pain in Breast Cancer Treatment

From TIME - December 7, 2017

Every year, tens of thousands of breast cancer survivors are prescribed aromatase inhibitorsmedications recommended for up to ten years to protect against a recurrence of the disease. But these drugs can cause side effects, including severe joint pain, which cause many women to stop taking them.

Now, research presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium suggests that acupuncture may reduce drug-related joint pain for these women, and may provide a way for them to continue taking these potentially life-saving medications. The study authors hope their findings will persuade more insurance companies to cover the alternative medicine technique, in addition to traditional breast cancer treatments.

Aromatase inhibitors are one of the most common and most effective medications in breast cancer, and theyre used for both prevention and for early-stage treatment, says lead author Dr. Dawn Hershman, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University and vice chair of SWOG, the research network that conducted the study. But we know that they dont work if people dont take them, and we know the most common people dont take them is because they develop side effects.

The medicinesincluding Arimidex, Aromasin and Femaraare commonly prescribed to post-menopausal women with hormone-sensitive breast cancers, sometimes for up to 10 years. (About 80% of all breast cancers are hormone-sensitive, also known as estrogen receptorpositive.) They can also be prescribed to post-menopausal women at high risk of a first-time breast cancer.

But about half of women who take aromatase inhibitors report joint pain and stiffness that affects knees, hips, hands and wrists. The pain can be so severe that it makes it difficult for women to walk, sit, climb stairs, type or drive a vehicle. Researchers even have a name for the condition: aromatase inhibitorassociated musculoskeletal syndrome, or AIMSS.

The study authors were interested in acupunctures potential as a non-pharmaceutical option for treating for AIMSS, which has been suggested in smaller studies. People dont want to take a medication that causes its own side effects to treat the side effects of another medication, says Hershman. And in this country right now, we want to do everything we can to avoid prescribing opioids, especially on a long-term basis.

Hershman and her colleagues enrolled 226 people with early-stage breast cancer from 11 treatment centers across the country. The women were randomly divided into three groups and for the next 12 weeks received true acupuncture, sham acupuncture (a method of superficially inserting needles into non-therapeutic points in the body) or no treatment at all.

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