Once a week, Nyack’s Keith Bird, 49, steps into the offices of acupuncturist Alan Handelsman on North Broadway and allows the doctor to stick him with about a dozen, hair-thin, inch-long needles. With needles protruding from his forehead, thighs and stomach, he lies back on a leather-bound examining table for about half an hour looking like a human pincushion. Bird is dying of cancer, and he says the half-hour he spends with Handelsman each week helps overcome the often debilitating effects of his chemotherapy. Long the subject of everything from mild skepticism to downright derision, the Food and Drug Administration last month paved the way for acupuncture to enter the medical mainstream by upgrading the status of the needles from experimental devices to medical tools. By reclassifying the needles, the FDA removed an obstacle to insurance coverage for acupuncture treatments. “Most people are taking acupuncture more seriously today,” says Handelsman, who began his years ago while living in Japan. Used for 2,000 years to treat a wide variety of conditions including chronic pain, depression, substance abuse, asthma and even stroke, Bird says it is the only treatment he’s tried that has helped him feel better after chemotherapy. “Everything about fighting cancer is a quality-of-life issue and sometimes you don’t want anything more than just to feel normal. When I leave Alan’s office, I feel a little more normal,” says Bird, a head nurse with the Westchester County Medical Center’s trauma unit. Acupuncture is thought to have begun with the discovery that the stimulation of specific areas on the skin affects the functioning of organs of the body. It has evolved into a system of medicine designed to maintain health by inserting needles into specific acupuncture points just beneath the body surface. Therese points lie on what traditional Chinese medicine calls “channels of energy.” For some, like Dr. Victor Herbert, a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, testimonials like Bird’s are more attributable to the power of acupuncture treatments. “Quackupunture,” he calls it. Herbert does not believe the modern scientific theory that acupuncture points stimulate the body to release chemicals such as endorphins, which are natural painkillers. “Pain itself can have the same effect,” he says. Still, just this year, the New York Medical College in Valhalla instituted a program to train physicians in acupuncture. The 300-hour program-the only such program sponsored by a medical school in the state- is approved as appropriate for certifying doctors to perform acupuncture. There are, according to the latest statistics, some 578 licensed acupuncturists in New York. Rockland County has seven. Laura and William Zinser of Nyack regularly go to an acupuncturist for treatments-even though neither has any specific illness. “We just decided that even though we weren’t really sick, we had a couple of mild maladies that we wanted to take care of before they got worse,” Laura Zinser says.