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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic approach to healthcare. It aims to balance the body and its external environment. Treatments include acupuncture, exercises and herbs. TCM is not proven to cure mesothelioma. But it may help reduce side effects and improve quality of life.


01. Traditional Chinese Medicine Overview

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a form of alternative and complementary medicine (ACM) that has been practiced for thousands of years. It is based on the principle that illnesses and poor health result from imbalances in Yin and Yang energies. Treatments focus on improving health by restoring balance to Qi (pronounced chee), or life energy.

Like western doctors, TCM practitioners determine a diagnosis before prescribing any treatments. Western medicine uses quantitative (or concrete) measurements like heart rate, blood pressure and laboratory tests, including biopsies. TCM diagnostics use more qualitative (or subjective) factors. This may include asking questions, feeling parts of the body for abnormalities and observing the patient.

Once the TCM practitioner has determined a diagnosis, they will decide which specific treatments may be most beneficial. TCM treatments may include:

Research has shown that some TCM herbs, such as ginseng and astragalus, may have positive benefits when used with lung cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

Experts recommend conventional therapies when treating mesothelioma and other cancers. Still, TCM may be a beneficial addition to multimodal treatments for patients with cancer like mesothelioma. It may help improve response to more common treatments, reduce side effects and have a positive impact on patients’ quality of life.

Purpose of Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM’s purpose is to restore balance both within the body and between the external environment and the body. In this holistic medicinal practice, a practitioner develops a treatment plan based on an individual’s diagnosis and specific needs. Treatment plans follow four main TCM principles and concepts.

The Four Key Principles of TCM

The Body Is an Integrated Whole
  • TCM believes every part of the body is essential to the whole.
  • This philosophy includes the mind, spirit and emotions, all powered by Qi.
Connection to Nature
  • TCM believes nature and the external world affect the body.
  • Factors include season, age, location and even time of day.
Self-Healing
  • TCM believes the body is capable of regeneration and self-healing.
  • The capacity for healing may be lessened for many reasons, but it’s rarely completely gone.
Prevention
  • TCM believes the body gives an individual cues and information about its state.
  • Recognizing these signals allows people to take preventative measures against illness.

TCM should not replace conventional treatments for cancer. But some data suggests it may improve the effectiveness of certain modern cancer therapies. In China, TCM is used to complement modern medicine like radiation and surgery. While TCM is less common in the United States, some studies are researching its potential benefits for various illnesses.

There is currently no research for mesothelioma and TCM. But investigators have studied its effects on lung cancer and cancer in general. Patients interested in TCM should look for certified practitioners. They should also work with their oncology doctors and care team to determine if TCM treatments will benefit them.

02. Chinese Herbs

Chinese Herbs for Mesothelioma

The use of specific Chinese herbs and combinations is one of the main components of TCM. Herbal therapy may be a helpful addition to common treatments for mesothelioma and other cancers. Herbal therapy treatments combine different herbs and medicines specific for each patient. These may be taken in pill or powder form, as teas or external salves and ointments.

Thousands of different herbs are used in TCM, some of which are used in western herbal dietary supplements. Some Chinese herbal substances studied as treatments for lung cancer include:

  • Astragalus (huang qi)
  • Cinobufacini
  • Codonopsis pilosula (dang shen)
  • Radix sophorae flavescentis (kushen)
  • Rhizoma smilacis glabrae (baituling)

Herbal Medicine for Lung Cancer

Some of the most common uses of TCM for cancer patients are herbal medicines and treatments. Multiple studies on a variety of Chinese herbs have shown they may help some lung cancer patients. Potential benefits include improved treatment response, survival rates and overall quality of life.

In treatments of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), Chinese herbal medicine has been linked to:

  • Decreased toxic effects compared to other medicines
  • Enhanced overall quality of life
  • Improved response to treatment
  • Increased survival rates

Curcumin and resveratrol are common elements of TCM therapies. These may sensitize cells to radiation, which may make radiation therapy more effective. These herbs have shown promise at improving the tumor response to some chemotherapy drugs.

Some specific herb combinations have been analyzed across multiple studies and clinical trials, including Aidi, Elemene and Kushen. Many of these studies focus on lung cancer. But they may also have applications for treating other cancers, such as pleural mesothelioma.

Herbal treatments can have their own side effects and may affect other treatments. Patients should consult with their doctors before adding any supplements to their care plans.

TCM for Lung Cancer Alongside Chemotherapy

Chinese herbal medicine paired with chemotherapy to treat lung cancer has shown promising results in a few studies.

A 2021 study analyzed lung cancer patients receiving chemotherapy with or without cinobufacini capsules. This TCM herbal supplement is formulated from specific dried toad venom. Cinobufacini has also been approved by the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration (CSFDA) for treatment of several cancers. Patients receiving cinobufacini were found to have better responses to treatment, improved survival rates and reduced side effects such as nausea.

In another study, small cell lung cancer (SCLC) patients received a specific Chinese herb combination alongside chemotherapy. Patients who took the herbal supplement for at least six months tended to have longer periods without noticeable tumor progression.

Studies have also reported benefits from supplementing chemo regimens with Aidi and Elemene injections.

  • Aidi injection: This is a common addition to chemotherapy for NSCLC in China. It is made from Mylabris phalerata, Radix astragalus, Radix ginseng and Acanthopanax senticosus. Alongside chemotherapy, Aidi injections have been found to improve treatment response, extend survival rates and reduce toxicities by more than a third.
  • Elemene injection: This is another herbal remedy sometimes combined with chemotherapy for treating lung cancer in China. This injection contains active ingredients from Curcumaaromatica salisb. The addition of Elemene has been found to improve treatment response, extend survival rates and improve quality of life.

These studies show the potential of these treatments to have real benefits for patients undergoing chemotherapy.

TCM for Lung Cancer Alongside Radiation Treatment

Studies have also paired traditional Chinese herbal injections with radiation treatment. Across multiple studies, Kushen injection improved treatment response and reduced some side effects of radiation treatment.

  • Kushen injection: This is a TCM herbal formulation made from the roots of Radix sophorae flavescentis and Rhizoma smilacis glabrae. Researchers have combined Kushen with radiation therapy for NSCLC. Findings showed improved treatment responses and quality of life. Kushen also reduced certain serious side effects like pneumonia.

These studies may be promising for mesothelioma patients who are receiving radiation therapy.

03. Other Types of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Other Types of Traditional Chinese Medicine for Mesothelioma

Beyond herbalism, TCM encompasses a number of different practices and treatments. Common TCM therapies may include acupuncture, massage, qigong exercises, dermal friction and moxibustion. These treatments may not directly treat cancers like mesothelioma. But they may improve mesothelioma symptoms and patients’ general quality of life.

Treatment recommendations are customized for each patient and their needs. For some, a specialist may make multiple therapy recommendations.

There are many different TCM treatments, including some not covered here. Mesothelioma patients may benefit from different types, depending on their unique diagnosis. Patients should consult mesothelioma specialists, or their doctors, to determine their best options.

Acupuncture and Other Acupoint Stimulation Therapies

Acupuncture and other acupoint stimulation therapies are methods of balancing Qi by targeting specific points of the body to improve energy flow. Acupuncture practitioners insert very thin needles shallowly into the skin at defined points on the body.

Image of a woman receiving acupuncture needles to the shoulder

Acupuncture is one of the most well-known TCM treatments. It has become increasingly popular in the United States for treating a variety of physical and psychological conditions. These conditions range from pain to cancer to stress and anxiety. Evidence suggests it may affect the nervous system and other tissues. Acupuncture may also have a placebo, or nonspecific, effect. A few Chinese studies have found more specific impacts of acupuncture in cancer patients.

A 2017 Chinese study treated lung cancer patients with acupuncture. Participants experienced a significant reduction in fatigue and improved quality of life. Another study treated cancer patients with acupuncture. These participants experienced reduced depression and insomnia when compared to patients receiving an antidepressant medication.

In addition to acupuncture, TCM practitioners may use a technique called acupressure. In this method, the practitioner applies pressure to acupuncture points with their fingers instead of needles. It is a form of tui na (pronounced twee na), or TCM therapeutic massage.

Bodywork and Energy Techniques

TCM practitioners may use several other approaches to help balance Qi. Some involve manual bodywork techniques, similar to traditional massage. Others use more indirect methods. These Qi-balancing methods include:

  • Cupping uses vacuum pressure to apply suction to the skin. Practitioners say it can draw out toxins and remove energy blockages. It is often done by heating a small glass cup, then inverting the warmed cup onto the skin.
  • Gua Sha, or dermal friction, uses friction on the surface of the skin to increase circulation and improve blood flow. Practitioners scrape the skin with a blunt tool.
  • Moxibustion involves placing smoldering plant materials, or moxa, close to the surface of the skin to help relieve energy blockages and restore the flow of Qi.

Diet and Nutrition

A TCM practitioner may recommend certain foods to support a patient’s well-being. The practice of nutrition-based therapy is already widely accepted as part of cancer treatment in the United States. TCM focuses on the energy and properties of different foods and dietary supplements and how they work with the body.

TCM practitioners may follow the Five Element Theory regarding diet. The five elements are water, fire, wood, metal and earth. Each element is believed to govern different parts of the body. For instance, the metal element is believed to govern the lungs. Foods linked to this element include garlic, ginger and fruits like apples and pears.

Some characteristics of foods practitioners may consider include flavor, color and the food’s growth season. As with any significant care or treatment changes, patients should consult their doctor before altering their diet.

Qigong Exercise

Qigong (pronounced chee gong) is an exercise that was developed in China thousands of years ago. It uses different poses and breathing patterns to improve the flow of energy throughout the body. There are both physical and psychological components. It is believed to help improve both physical and mental well-being. When used as a wellness practice, Tai Chi is one form of qigong.

In most qigong practices, breathing is slow and deep. Practitioners may combine different breathing methods and sounds. The movements incorporated are typically smooth and gentle. Mental regulation includes mindfulness and visualization.

While studies into the benefits of qigong are limited, there is evidence it may help cancer patients. One review analyzed seven studies of patients with various types of cancer. Patients engaged in qigong sessions a few times a week for 6 to 12 weeks. They reported significant improvements in sleep quality. The practice also had positive impacts on stress, depression and overall quality of life.

The American Cancer Society already promotes exercise as a helpful activity for cancer patients. Qigong may be a beneficial option for patients looking to incorporate more movement practices into their lives.

04. Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine Benefits

TCM’s holistic approach to wellness may supplement traditional cancer treatment. These TCM therapies may help improve overall health, boost tolerance of other therapies and possibly extend survival rates.

A TCM practitioner may also be able to suggest treatments to target specific symptoms. These may include pain, inflammation, stress, anxiety, nausea and digestion difficulties.

Potential Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine for Mesothelioma Patients

Acupoint Therapies

Benefits of acupoint therapies may include:

  • Improved quality of life
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Reduced fatigue and depression symptoms
  • Reduced nausea, vomiting and pain

Chinese Herbs

Benefits of Chinese herbs may include:

  • Extended survival rates
  • Improved response to treatment
  • Reduced nausea and vomiting
  • Reduced side effects of other treatments

Diet

Benefits of TCM diet changes may include:

  • Helping to prevent additional illness
  • Improved balance of energy
  • Improved digestion
  • Improved overall health
  • Reduced nausea and vomiting

Qigong

Benefits of qigong may include:

  • Improved immune response
  • Improved overall mental and physical health
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Reduced stress and anxiety

The broad goals of TCM practices are promising for those with cancer and may be helpful for some mesothelioma patients. Patients interested in any form of TCM should consult their doctors and care teams to determine the best potential treatments for their specific illness and symptoms.

05. Traditional Chinese Medicine Side Effects

Side Effects of Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM is not a single treatment but an umbrella covering a variety of therapies. Each therapy may come with its own specific side effects.

For example, there is a risk of adverse effects with Chinese herbal medicines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not evaluate or approve herbal supplements before sale. So, it’s vital for patients to find certified practitioners who can ensure the quality of the herbs.

Patients interested in herbal remedies should not seek them out by themselves. There are many scams, incorrectly labeled formulas and plants and quality control issues around herbs from untrustworthy sources. Patients should also keep their oncology team informed of any TCM practices to prevent adverse reactions or impacts to traditional treatment.

Potential Side Effects of Traditional Chinese Medicine for Mesothelioma Patients

Acupuncture

Acupuncture has relatively few reported side effects. Patients may experience:

  • Fainting, nausea or dizziness associated with needles
  • Improper administration can result in infections or damage to organs
  • Slight bruising and soreness where the needles were after the treatment

Chinese Herbs

Chinese herbal medicines may cause:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances, like constipation and bloating
  • Reactions due to poor quality control, contaminated ingredients or mislabeled formulas
  • Reduced effectiveness of other treatments

Diet

Diet changes may not cause side effects. But some potential effects of diet adjustments include:

  • Adverse interactions with specific treatments and certain foods
  • Aggravation of allergies or food intolerances and sensitivities
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances, like constipation and bloating

Qigong

Qigong is a relatively low-risk activity. Participants may experience:

  • Heightened fall risks (elderly patients, those with balance or mobility problems or pregnant people should exercise extra caution to prevent falls or injury)
  • Soreness or minor aches and pains after a session

The risk of adverse side effects with TCM is relatively low but not nonexistent. Experts say complications can result from improper acupuncture techniques or faulty equipment. These risks highlight the importance of finding a reputable, certified practitioner.

06. Finding a Specialist

How to Find Traditional Chinese Medicine Specialists

Patients seeking TCM treatment should only work with licensed, certified professionals. TCM is regulated, and practitioners should be board certified in acupuncture or traditional Chinese herbal medicine. This certification varies depending on the treatment.

Some states have laws regulating acupuncture practice and may require certification from the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine (ACAHM). The federally recognized ACAHM accredits schools that teach acupuncture and TCM.

Separate certification programs in acupuncture, Chinese herbology and bodywork are offered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). The NCCAOM directory lists certified practitioners.

Mesothelioma patients can ask their doctor or trusted healthcare providers for recommendations for a TCM practitioner. Doctors may also be able to suggest TCM clinical trials patients may be able to join.

People should also vet any potential TCM specialist they’re considering working with. Some considerations when choosing a TCM practitioner include:

  • If they will work with the patient’s primary doctor or oncologist (it’s important they are diligent about keeping the doctor informed of all treatments or therapies)
  • If they’ve worked with people with the same illness before
  • What the treatment will involve
  • What to expect in general from the process
  • Where and when were they educated and certified

TCM is still limited in its integration with health care in the United States. But it may provide genuine benefits to cancer patients when used under medical supervision.

07. Common Questions

Common Questions About Traditional Chinese Medicine for Mesothelioma

Can Traditional Chinese Medicine help mesothelioma?

There is no current research on TCM and mesothelioma. But some herbal formulations have helped with lung cancer and cancer in general. These formulations are usually not available in the United States. Potential benefits include reduced side effects of traditional treatments like chemotherapy, improved response to treatment, extended survival rates and better overall health.

What Traditional Chinese Medicine is used for lung disease?

In some treatments of NSCLC, various Chinese herbal medicines have shown fewer toxic effects than other medicines, increased survival rates and improved tumor responses. Two common compounds in TCM, curcumin and resveratrol, may improve the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

What Chinese herbs help with lung health?

There are a variety of different TCM herbs and formulations that may support lung health. These may include:

  • Astragalus, a widely used Chinese herb that may boost the immune system and has shown potential benefits for cancer patients in studies
  • Resveratrol, found in certain plants, grapes and berries
  • Shenqi Fuzheng, an injection which combines root of astragalus and root of Codonopsis pilosula and is approved by the CSFDA as an anti-tumor treatment
  • Yupingfeng San, a combination of astragalus, atractylodes and fengfeng thought to improve lung Qi