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About a month ago, I had my very first acupuncture treatment (ever!). For years now I’ve heard and read about how helpful acupuncture can be, especially for symptoms that don’t always respond well to traditional Western medicine. But I was so put off by the whole idea of getting stuck with a bunch of needles, I never tried it. Besides, before this dance with cancer I was really darned healthy and never felt a real need for acupuncture.

When my discomfort from the “hand and foot syndrome” (a nasty side effect of Xeloda) was enough to keep me from doing things I enjoyed, a fellow yoga student, who also happens to be a well respected acupuncturist, offered to treat me in hopes of relieving some of the chemo side effects. I was reluctant, but my pain was great enough to get me to go. Now, five treatments later, I’m so glad I kept that first appointment!

So, I’ve found myself in the unlikely role of telling everyone I meet how great acupuncture is. Seems like time to post a blog entry about this whole acupuncture thing.

Look closely - there are needles in my back!

First: It makes a difference who you go to.  I really like Leah Fineberg. She’s compassionate and nurturing at the same time as being funny and direct. We talk and laugh throughout the appointment, sometimes comparing notes about our families (who’s driving us crazy and why), sometimes dissecting the last yoga class (“were there an awful lot of deep twists, or what?”), and sometimes she just listens while I complain about the lingering side effects of chemo. But the thing that really matters to me is that I like how I feel after my interactions with Leah. That hasn’t always been my experience with “healers.”

SecondIt’s not about the needles.  At my very first appointment Leah told me, “I don’t have to use needles on you.” She took my pulse at several points on my wrists and throat. She applied pressure with her hands to my shoulders, back and hips. And then, when I was comfortable and she decided she’d like to try the needles, it was really no big deal at all. I was nervous enough before she inserted the first one to jump a little when her hand touched my back (before the needle even came close…). But then I didn’t even notice when the needle itself went in. Since that first time, if I feel anything at all, it’s as if a finger thumps me lightly. Usually it’s not even that much. Once in while (infrequently) I’ll feel a tiny poke or pinch that happens briefly and then it’s over. It’s not nearly as bad as having blood drawn – not even close.

ThirdIt’s so soothing you won’t believe it.  I tend to feel cold more often than not (except when I’m having a hot flash – which is a new phenomenon for me – but afterward I go right back to feeling cold). So when she heated up needles on either side of my spine I was in heaven. For the first time in ages my spine felt warm and supple, not stiff and achy like is has while I’ve been in treatment for cancer. She uses something called “moxa” (an herb that’s applied externally and burned like incense). Apparently, using the moxa together with the needles allows you to relax even more. Now, I look forward to this part of the session more than any other single thing she does. The overall experience of acupuncture has turned out to be very comforting, but the heated needles are the bomb!

Heated needles ... mmmmmm!

FourthThe healing effects are almost immediate.  I usually leave Leah’s office feeling light and peaceful – even if we’ve talked during the entire session. Something about the treatment calms me immediately. And Leah has said my “pulses” have gotten better with each visit (I’ll just have to trust her on that one). I feel certain I’m getting benefit from having these acupuncture treatments, but – in answer to those who ask if it’s “effective” or not? – it’s something I experience as being very healing, and that counts as “effective” in my book!

Acupuncture is also a very individual experience. It may not be for everyone. I’m normally kind of reluctant about things I don’t understand. But, in this case, I can say without any hesitation that acupuncture has helped me better deal with the side effects and stresses of cancer treatment. And for that I can only be grateful!

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Well, I can’t quite believe I’ve gone 10 days without blogging! What’s up with that?

Truth be told, I’ve been back on the roller-coaster of feeling good one day, crappy the next, terrible the next, then somewhat okay again…only to start the whole process over in some variation of the theme.

I’m sorry to have to admit that I’ve begun really struggling with the mounting side effects of chemo. I was sorting through a big pile of prescription info a few days ago and came across one for Xeloda. I decided to actually READ the list of side effects printed on the Walgreen’s info sheet (okay, I know, I should have read these months ago…but all the doctors and nurses kept telling me what to look for, so I skipped that particular homework). I was a little shocked to read this:

Xeloda Side Effects

The reason I was shocked is that I’ve experienced every single one of the side effects listed here! And I’m not “80 or older” either! Granted, some of them have been worse than others (the “hand-and-foot syndrome” is currently the most problematic for me, closely followed by “tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache.” But I can put nausea and vomiting at the bottom of the list, thankfully).

A well respected acupuncturist, Leah Fineberg, who attends the same yoga class I do (she’s been across the room from me for a couple of years, but I never really got to know her until recently) offered to work with me to try to alleviate some of the side effects. I had my first appointment with her last week. It was also my first ever acupuncture appointment, so I was a little nervous. She immediately put me at ease by saying she might not even use needles on me during the session, but after checking my pulses, she said she felt I was strong enough for a few “baby needles.” I was pleasantly surprised that I felt nothing more than her soothing presence when she inserted a number of needles in my back along either side of my spine. A little later she put some in my feet and, again, I felt no discomfort. In fact, the entire session was very relaxing. But she impressed me the most by the research she had done before I arrived. She’d looked up “hand-and-foot syndrome” on the internet, and had also gone to the trouble to discuss it with her husband, an M.D. with whom she shares office space.

She was able to tell me more about the condition than my oncologist had! It turns out the reason the problem arises has to do with excreting the toxins of chemo. I already knew that the chemo was passing out of me through my saliva, urine, and bowel movements, but I was unaware that it also leaches out of the pores of my skin, primarily through my palms and soles. In effect, it’s poisoning the skin – hence the discoloration and pain. Leah also told me that the two things I should avoid are heat and pressure on my hands and feet. Well, um, how exactly do you avoid pressure on your feet – unless you give up walking? And, avoiding pressure on my hands means: no gardening, no cleaning, no typing, no handicrafts! What am I supposed to do? Sit around and watch TV all day? (That would actually be another problem as I don’t have a TV connection…). And no hot showers? Are you kidding me?

So, I’m in a quandary. I told myself I would try to make it the full six months on chemo. Then I told myself I would try to make it at least four months. But, here I am at the halfway point and I really, really, really want to quit.

Leah’s husband, Don Fineberg, also took the time to talk with me. He could hear my desperation to quit, and he gave me some innovative ways to think about the decision. I am very grateful for his time and advice, and it definitely helped me focus more clearly on what my true goal is…but I’m still in a quandary. I sort of feel like the only reason I would choose to keep going with this treatment is to prove that I can. Somehow that just doesn’t seem like the right reason to continue. In my heart of hearts, I know I’m cancer-free and I strongly believe I am not destined to be one of the tiny percentage (less than 10% of cases like mine) that has a relapse. By taking the chemo for the past three months, surely I’ve reduced that percentage even more.

Anyway, that’s where I am these days. Not sure what I’m going to do. But I do know this: I’m going to garden, walk, type, make things in my studio, clean (occasionally) and go to yoga. Pressure or not! And enjoy my hot showers…

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