The side effects of chemotherapy are many and very bothersome. If acupuncture could help ease these symptoms, it would be welcome news. This story reports on the presentation of a new study at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology meeting this week suggesting that acupuncture relieves side effects in women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
But this story ultimately fails to deliver important information to the reader. It never described the current study, didn’t evaluate the quality of the evidence, and didn’t mention that the study has only been presented at a scientific meeting and has not been published and peer-reviewed. It also left out other details such as the costs of acupuncture, any potential harms of the treatment and the pros and cons of the available alternatives.
Finally, the story does not adequately quantify the benefits of acupuncture. The story states that "as many as three-quarters of cancer patients report being helped by acupuncture." Compared to how many in the control group? How much were they helped by it? How did they measure improvement?
Readers may be interested in the critique on The Junkfood Science blog, which comments on this and other news stories on this study.
The story does not mention the costs of acupuncture and whether or not insurance would likely cover it.
The story does not adequately quantify the benefits of acupuncture. The story states that "as many as three-quarters of cancer patients report being helped by acupuncture." Compared to how many in the control group? How much were they helped by it? How did they measure improvement?
The story does not mention any potential drawbacks to acupuncture. The experts quoted claim that "there are no risks involved" in acupuncture. The few potential risks of acupuncture (albeit rare) include skin infections, hepatitis (if disposable needles are not used), pneumothorax (if too deep over the chest), and local hematoma. Also many "local" acupuncturists may also recommend Chinese herbal remedies which have known herb-drug interactions and potential for organ toxicity.
The story does not describe the current study at all. Nor does the story mention that the study has only been presented at a scientific meeting and has not been published and peer-reviewed. This is a major weakness of the piece.
The story does not exaggerate the seriousness or prevalence of side effects of chemotherapy.
The story only quotes one expert, who is at the center discussed in the story. The story could have been improved by including other, independent experts.
The story mentions anti-depressants to treat hot flashes but does not mention any other medications or alternative therapies that are available.
Clearly acupuncture is available, but the story wasn’t clear about just how available it is. The story mentions that "at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, many patients with different types of cancer are now offered acupuncture as a routine part of their care." How widespread is this? Are there specially trained acupuncturists for this indication? Is this a "targeted" type of acupuncture for chemotherapy side effects, or a more general treatment, say for nausea?
The story didn’t make any claims about the novelty of this area of research. Clearly acupuncture is not a new idea. Neither is research into its potential to curb chemotherapy side effects.
There is no direct evidence that the story relied solely or largely on a news release. In fact, the story doesn’t even interview the lead author of the study who is from Detroit and who is mentioned in hospital and conference news releases. Instead, it looks like the network turned to an expert who was more available and convenient.