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The Dong Han View of Cancer

by James Ramholz

Originally published in Oriental Medicine Journal

A tumor is a confined mass of tissue that develops without inflammation from normal tissue, an abnormal swelling within the body, or the enlargement of tissues by normal or pathological materials or cells that form a mass–greater than 1.0 cm in diameter–but has an abnormal structure and rate of growth. A tumor, as a separate mass, does not alter organic function; although it may create extra pressure.

The essential difference between tumors and cancer is that a tumor does not resemble the tissue it occupies, whereas cancer does. Cyst or tumors are independent masses whereas cancer is formed in the organ itself. A skin tumor, for instance, will not closely resemble the surrounding skin tissue; but cancerous tissue on the skin does. A tumor grows in the local area, it attacks the skin, then the muscle etc.

Cancer, on the other hand, tends to invade healthy tissue, spread to new sites, and follows its system–it could be vascular system or circulatory system–and will alter the energy of an organ or tissue as evidenced by the pulses. Certain cancers are more perverse then others. This degree of perversity can be analyzed from two different perspectives. The first would be by looking at it as a perverse wind qi movement; another is the degree of similarity between the cancer and the organ it resides in.

If a cancer easily moves between tissues and organs, even before it takes over one type of tissue or organ completely, it is all the more perverse because of its mobility. If we compare the two situations, one where an organ has 50% cancerous tissue and the other where 50% of an organ is not functioning, having cancerous tissue is "healthier" than the complete loss of function.

Pulse Diagnosis

In general, when dealing with cancer cases, you have to strengthen the controlling or grandmother element. The grandmother is the element that controls the cancerous organ; if not suppressed, the cancer it will grow much stronger. If the cancer grows too strong, it will move to the controlling element. Cancer usually follows the sedation cycle or moves against the tonification cycle; less common, is the movement against the sedation cycle. But it does not ordinarily follow the tonification cycle.

By dividing any pulse position into three levels, we can calculate the emotional, organic, and physical relationships of the cancer (Five Elements of Five Elements of Five Elements). A cancer pulse is usually double layered, but it can also be Concealed, Knotted, Substitutional, Choking, or Intermittent. When it is double layered, usually the very top it will be Knotted. Anytime a pulse is mixing with another one it will create a knotted sensation at the fingertips. When the cancer completely takes over, the whole pulse will become doubled and will look like two distinct layers. If the pulse is just knotting, then it means that something is blocking and growing, but if it actively doubling, then it is creating a malignant activity.

Sometimes called a Binding pulse, it is an indication of excessive yin. Any two waves weaving into a rope shape or tangling with each other always indicate cancerous energy. If this mode is seen in the mid level of a pulse, the organ has cancer; if in the superficial level, cancer is starting to form in the organ; if in the deep level, cancer is moving on (metastasis).

Pulse diagnosis, because it is a real-time system of analysis, only indicates if the cancer is presently active. If it is in remission, there will not be any cancer activity; although when the cancer is inactive, it can still be a source of stress to the involved organ. If the Four Gates are needled, a cancer in remission will be more apparent in the pulses. But this is not a recommended technique. If the body is not ready to effectively resolve the cancer, this treatment might actually activate it.

It should also be noted that when cancer is inactive or in remission, the cancer pulse shapes–knotting and intermediate–do not manifest. The practitioner should compare the other pulse positions and shapes to determine energetic balance and movement.

If three organs are adulterated by this pulse, then it almost certainly indicates death. Yang organs with cancer are easier to treat than yin organs. If any of auxiliary pulses are copying the major cancer movement, suspect them, since cancer is a type of cell that is has very similar genetic information that the host organ possesses.

In general we want the cancer to go into remission first and then work on the original cause of the problem. Once the cancer is in remission and the perverse activity has stopped, the window of opportunity is extended to safely work on the original cause. We stop the cancer growth first in order to stop the leakage of energy and stabilize the body before going further with treatment. Remember that if there is no energy, then there is nothing really for you to work with in treatment. If for example, a cancer has been in situ for a prolonged period of time but it is not active or not growing may much more difficult to eliminate than an active cancer.

The only way to eliminate cancer is to allow the body to "be aware" of the presence of the cancer. Prior to this the cancer was inactive or just sitting there without exchanging energy with the rest of the body. To eliminate this mass, You cannot just go in if there is no response or activity from the thing that you are working. You have to tap into another source of energy in order to get rid of this one.

So in cases when they have a little lump that has been sitting there for a long period of time one of the techniques is to put the needle right inside and sedate it with the bird pecking technique. But the term sedation in this case is an oversimplification; actually what happens is that the bird pecking technique stimulates energy circulation and brings vital yang energy to the core of the mass. If the cancer growth is exceptionally slow in an older people, it may be less traumatic to defer surgery, if the cancer will cause fewer physical problems.

Acupuncture Treatment Strategy

The body creates blockages in the lymph, nerves, tissues and meridians to prevent the movement or spread of the cancer. If a blockage is slowing the cancer movement do not unblock it. If cancer patients show blockages on shu points make sure that the blockage is not beneficial or necessary. Indiscriminant needling of shu points, ashi points, or trigger points can allow the cancer to spread if it is already susceptible to movement, or become activated if in remission. Because the cancer is the guest energy, vital qi tends to be tonified more quickly and directly; the pathogen gets sedated more quickly than the vital qi.

Still, tonification skills must be used cautiously to prevent reinforcing the movement of the cancer itself. During each treatment session, tonify 7 units and sedate 3 units.

Case Study

According to Jiang Jing we can create the cancer ourselves through various emotional stresses as well as physical ones. Jiang Jing had a case of inflammatory breast cancer he worked on for three years. Even though the cancer itself went into remission after the first three months, it took three years to work on the elemental emotional and organic causes.

This work was done to prevent the emotional and energetic patterns from recreating the cancer. If all three energetic levels–emotional, organic, and adapted–are completely balanced, it will be very difficult for the condition to reoccur. So if the patient can clear up the emotional disturbances causing the original stress it should remain cleared for their lifetime.


When you examine the fetus through the pulses, it may appear very similar to cancer. As the fetus grows in its own confined space, it draws upon the resources of the host’s body, as does cancer. The most important difference is that the fetus grows in the uterus and does not intrude into the host.

Pregnancy can look like cancer, especially in the initial stage, because it does not yet display much heavy, yin qualities in the pulse; and there is a immense amount of yang energy activity. If it is not known whether a women has a tumor, a cancer, or baby, examine the pulse for an independent Five Element balance. It should look like it belongs to the uterus and is copying its movement because the uterus is collecting everything; but all the vital energies are all balanced.


When patients receive chemo or radiation therapy, look for a energetic movement indicating heat in the pulse texture or overlaying the pulse wave. In these cases, sedate the heat in the kidney by tonifying the water element and the earth element of water and earth. This will provide stronger mucus and body fluid secretion. This is one of the few situations where you intentionally tonify mucus secretion. If not done, chemo and radiation therapy can burn out mucus membranes.

Fibroid Tumors

When patients have fibroid tumors, pay attention to the spleen and liver pulses, along with the pulses that correspond to the location of the fibroids. Basically we search for a blocking pulse or a pulse that is knotting and, at the same time, going into the tissue level. If for example they have fibroid tumors in the breast you will have to check the lung pulse, along with the spleen and the liver, in order to verify where it is Knotting. If the fibroids happen to be in the uterus, check the Sanjiao, kidney, spleen, and liver pulses.


1. For further information see "A Brief Survey of the Korean Dong Han System of Pulse Diagnosis" by Jiang Jing in Oriental Medicine, Volume 2, #1.

2. Lv.3 (Taichong) and L.I.4 (Hegu) bilaterally open the general meridian flow through the limbs and torso.

3. For more details on breast cancer refer to Jiang Jing’s article, "The Heart Meridian," in the Winter 1992 (Vol. 1, #3) issue of this journal.


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