Alumna's Cancer Research Builds Case for Acupuncture

Bastyr Alumn Headshot of Erin Moran

Bermuda native Erin Moran, DAOM ('10), MS ('01), is proof that Bastyr University students come from many walks of life. She was in dental school in England when she grew ill and received care from a friend trained in naturopathic medicine. That convinced Moran to come to Bastyr to earn a Master of Science in Acupuncture and a Master of Science in Nutrition. After providing acupuncture to cancer patients in Bermuda — and seeing its power to heal — she returned to Bastyr to earn a doctorate in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.

Now Dr. Moran specializes in cancer care at a practice in British Columbia. She's also helping lead a clinical research study examining acupuncture's potential to repair nerve damage from chemotherapy in hands and feet — a project she began at Bastyr.

She spoke to us recently about why she enjoys combining research and patient practice.

What have you been up to since you graduated two years ago?

I live in a little fishing village just south of Vancouver. I joined a practice that seemed like it would be a good fit, and it's working out really well. My colleague was excited because she was too busy and had overflow clients. That's been my day-to-day focus.

I also knew I wanted to work in integrative oncology. We don't have privatized medicine here, so pretty much everybody goes to the British Columbia Cancer Agency for cancer treatment. I wanted to do research and eventually be a part of starting an acupuncture program at the agency. That's one of my dreams. But B.C. and the rest of Canada are really behind the U.S. in integrative oncology. We're probably 10 years behind as far as integrating different modalities into cancer treatment. So it feels good to contribute to that effort.

And I've also had a baby in the last year. So I've been busy, but it's all been positive stuff.

How do you explain the role acupuncture can play in cancer care?

I've seen tremendous results in people both during and after their chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Part of the reason I did the doctoral program at Bastyr is because I saw so many cancer patients when I was working in Bermuda, which is where I grew up.

There was one patient in particular who came in every week during her chemo with very strange symptoms. One week she would have incredible shingles. We would do treatment and she would feel completely improved. Another week she would have severe diarrhea, and acupuncture helped with that, too. I would say that 80 percent of our patients felt very improved after getting acupuncture during their chemotherapy.

What are you trying to discover through your research?

I'll be looking at chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), which is a numbness or tingling in the hands and feet. It's a toxicity reaction to chemo, which can damage nerves.

I did some clinical research on this through a pilot trial at Bastyr funded by Whidbey Island General Hospital. We found three things. First, acupuncture led to significant changes in patients' perception of pain. Second, many quality-of-life parameters improved. Patients felt more able to engage socially because they had better balance on their feet. Finally, many sensory qualities improved, such as the ability to distinguish between hot and cold water.

The next phase will be with the B.C. Cancer Agency, which took me on as the acupuncture research partner for its Complementary Medicine Education and Outcomes program. I'll be working with two oncologists in Ontario who published one of the only pilot trials on acupuncture for CIPN. It'll be a three-armed study, comparing acupuncture, standard treatment and a placebo.

What does traditional Chinese medicine enable you to do for cancer patients?

I use as many research-based facts as I possibly can. So I'll refer to American Institute for Cancer Research documents for things like simple dietary changes or how much exercise is good. Or that sugary drinks are not good for people with cancer. I may talk about basic Chinese medicine principles such as not drinking freezing cold water with meals to enhance digestion, or eating spleen-friendly foods like steamed vegetables as opposed to salads. Very simple stuff.

I had a patient who had colon cancer and a partial colectomy. She was having severe diarrhea. She hadn't seen a nutritionist after surgery — the doctors just expected her to go on with life and figure out diet on her own. Based on my education I knew she should be on a low-fiber diet and avoid wheat bread or raw vegetables.

You also have a consulting service for patients in Bermuda and the United Kingdom. How did that get started?

I wanted to continue to be available for patients in Bermuda. Then word got out to a family friend in the U.K., and I have two patients there. I basically have Skype consultations doing Chinese medicine and nutrition. It's hard to do. I can look at the tongue over Skype, but I can't take pulses, which are very important. So I'm not sure how much of this I'll do.

How did you discover you wanted to study acupuncture?

I was in dental school in England. A friend told me she was going into Chinese medicine. I was skeptical. I went to visit her and during the trip I got a strange virus and got really sick. She nursed me back to health, gave me acupuncture and gave me some books to read. The whole mindset of traditional medicine just resonated with me, and that was it. I chose Bastyr because it was accredited and I could study acupuncture and nutrition at the same time.

What's the most important thing you've learned since graduating?

I've learned that choosing a concentration is a really good idea, because it gives you a focus. If you're a naturopath, an acupuncturist or something else, pick a subject you're interested in and delve into it. It doesn't mean you can't treat other things. I enjoy doing that. But I like the fact that I have one area on which I'm constantly trying to build.