Acupuncture made an enormous difference in my ability to tolerate chemo during my first breast cancer experience in 1999. So when I got diagnosed with a second breast cancer earlier this year, I turned instinctively to acupuncture. And I knew that I needed to start receiving treatments immediately so that I could benefit from acupuncture’s ability to reduce anxiety.

As anyone who’s gotten a cancer diagnosis knows, the anxiety begins as soon as you get the call from your physician telling you that you’ve got cancer. In fact, you’ve probably been dealing with stress, anxiety or fear ever since you were first told that some diagnostic test was needed.

Because my first cancer had been in the same (right) breast, a lumpectomy followed by radiation was no longer an option. Instead my choices revolved around whether to have a bilateral mastectomy and whether to have reconstruction. I said yes to the first choice and no to the second.

I pushed for an early surgery date because I remembered how excruciating the three-week wait for surgery had been 19 years ago. So I had ten days between making the decision to have a double mastectomy without reconstruction and the day of surgery to prepare myself for the biggest operation I had ever had. I wanted to bring my best self—mentally strong, physically resilient—to that operating room at one of Boston’s major medical centers, where a highly skilled breast surgeon and her team would spend 3.5 hours removing an 11 mm invasive lobular carcinoma and with it, my breasts. 


Hugo, my long-time acupuncturist, was no longer available because he now worked in the chemotherapy ward at Massachusetts General Hospital, and I wasn’t a patient there. It’s at least good news that one of the country’s leading hospitals is practicing integrative medicine. But I’m sad that Hugo is no longer at my side with his healing skills and his beautiful empathy.

Over the next ten days until the day before surgery, I had an acupuncture treatment every two to three days.

Fortunately I’ve been able to find another very good acupuncturist. I made an appointment for the next day—at the same time that I was juggling calls from nurses scheduling pre-op appointments and hospital administrators arranging the surgery. Over the next ten days until the day before surgery, I had an acupuncture treatment every two to three days. 

Whereas my use of acupuncture during my first bout with cancer revolved around minimizing the effects of chemotherapy, this second time it has focused on preparing for and healing after surgery. The four acupuncture sessions prior to surgery helped enormously to calm my significant levels of anxiety. 

Guided meditation

I was also fortunate to find a very effective double CD called “Guide to Promote Successful Surgery” by Belleruth Naparstek in the Health Journeys series (available on Amazon). It’s over 25 years old and you need to dig out your old CD player from the bottom of some drawer, but it has stood the test of time. The first CD is guided meditation that uses visualization and affirmative statements; the second CD is music composed to reduce pre-surgery stress.

Together, the meditation and the music really helped calm my fears and get emotionally ready for the big day. I listened to the CDs twice a day and sometimes before sleep. On the day of surgery, I played them on the drive to the hospital and while I waited for the medical team to get started. You’re even encouraged to play the music CD during surgery because apparently the brain can still process sound even when you’re under general anesthesia. That seemed like a bit much for me. So as I was wheeled into the operating room, I left the CDs and the player behind. The meditations and the music had done their work.

After surgery

My main concern in seeking out acupuncture prior to surgery was to help reduce anxiety. Just as important but less obvious in the days before surgery is acupuncture’s ability to strengthen the immune system, which is helpful for any hospital stay. Its energy boosting capacity then propelled me into three weeks of the most intense healing after surgery. 

When I returned to acupuncture two weeks after surgery I badly needed its powers to detoxify from any lingering anesthesia and other drugs I’d had in the hospital, to restore depleted energy, and to generally heal from the assault that surgery is on your body (even as it’s often a necessary and important part of cancer care). Over the last five months, I’ve had 18 acupuncture sessions, most intensively at the beginning.

Once we had dealt with the immediate aftereffects of surgery, the focus turned to wound healing.

It’s definitely weird to look like a porcupine across your chest (you don’t have to look but I was curious) but the treatments helped reduce inflammation. I also believe that acupuncture has accelerated healing of the incisions. 

Today (October 9) is exactly five months since surgery. I’m feeling good although some surgical healing still needs to happen. That will come in time. Acupuncture is an important factor in getting me to where I am now.

Ruth’s posts in this series

Banner photo from Ruth Hennig

About the Author

Ruth Hennig

Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.

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Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.  Since stepping down from the foundation’s staff, Ruth has joined its board. Ruth has a track record of involvement in creating organizations that bring new capacity to the public interest sector, especially in health and the environment. In addition to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, she has helped establish or has been a founding board member of SmartPower, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Baraka Community Wellness and IssueOne. She also serves on the board of League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Photography, politics, gardening and yoga are her special interests.

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