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Ray Hartjen never tried acupuncture until he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a type of blood cancer) in May 2019 — a difficult thing to digest even before treatment starts.
But then came the chemotherapy, steroids and immunotherapy, not to mention the resulting painful side effects. The Pleasanton resident suffered skin rashes, fatigue, insomnia, constipation and diarrhea, all of which can feel as bad as the cancer itself.
“I thought I would give both acupuncture and acupressure a try in an effort to alleviate the symptoms of my treatment,” he said. “Both of them seemed to provide a moderate amount of relief; I used to doze off during acupuncture and that was a welcome relief.”
“When I feel better, I am empowered to exercise and build my strength and flexibility,” Hartjen said. “That allows me the energy to go to my doctor appointments and prepares my body to better receive my medications.”
Hartjen’s oncologists at Stanford Health Care-ValleyCare in Pleasanton told him about Sandra J. Wing Healing Therapies Foundation, a nonprofit that provides grants for local patients suffering from cancer and treatment side effects.
The foundation was started based on Tri-Valley resident Sandra Wing’s own experience with alternative and complimentary treatments while combating cancer. Wing was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer at 47, forcing her to undergo a hysterectomy and chemotherapy, as well as all the treatment side effects.
“She tried five different things — acupuncture, acupressure, therapeutic massage, guided and visual imagery and deep-breathing meditation — and it was really helpful to her,” said Mara Kutter, the foundation’s project coordinator. “She wanted to make the same kind of therapies available for other people. A lot of people don’t know about these things. These therapies are compliments to cancer treatment, not alternative treatments.”
Encouraged by her improved feeling of well-being, Wing started the foundation in an effort to share her pain relief methods with others. Though Kutter stresses that the idea isn’t to use alternative therapies to cure cancer, and beneficiaries need to already be undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment or have done so during the past 18 months to receive support from the foundation.
“That’s not to say (complimentary treatments) don’t help cancer, but what we’re trying to do is help people with compromised systems get through treatment,” Kutter explained. “When we’ve done surveys of people, 98 percent have indicated it’s helped a lot with things like pain, appetite, energy, diarrhea and more.”
The foundation connects people to “alternative” services covered by few insurance companies; however, many of the therapies that are covered, such as Kaiser Permanente’s group acupuncture sessions, aren’t currently possible with COVID-19 restrictions.
The foundation uses 25 to 30 providers in the Tri-Valley area, and raises funds through events, individual donations and sponsors. Grants are $500 and last for a year.
Massage therapist Kathleen Beaulieu — whose specialties include working with lymph nodes, a key bodily component in cancer’s spread — was one of the first service providers Wing hired.
“They’re very ill after chemo and radiation. It just depletes them of everything,” said Beaulieu, who owns Pleasanton Family Wellness Center.
“There are special things you do,” she said of her work. “(L)ymph nodes are very important, especially to women with breast cancer, because the lymph nodes carry the cancer to other parts of the body. There’s lots of inflammation there.”
Beaulieu sees herself as a coach and often forms connections with patients, staying in touch regardless of the status of their grants. (Her treatments go beyond massage and include light therapy for patients going through radiation.)
“At least we’re able to give them comfort and hope,” Beaulieu said. “If these people don’t have hope, they have nothing to look forward to.”
The American Cancer Society lists acupuncture, massage and meditation as helpful, and safe alternative and complementary treatments for side effects when used with more mainstream methods like chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
The website states, “There are many complementary methods you can safely use along with standard treatment to help relieve symptoms or side effects, to ease pain and to help you enjoy life more. Even if they aren’t fully tested, you can choose methods that don’t usually cause harm and won’t interfere with your cancer treatment.”
It also suggests acupuncture can help mild pain and nausea; massage can decrease stress, anxiety, depression and pain, and increase alertness; and that meditation relaxes the body and calms the mind. For more information about Sandra J. Wing Healing Therapies Foundation, visit the website or call (925) 249-6771.