A diagnosis of cancer is a highly stressful experience and increasingly, a common reason for people to consult a medical herbalist. With ongoing environmental exposures to carcinogenic agents, genetic predispositions and aging populations, this is likely to continue in coming decades.
Pharmaceutical company expenditure on research into new cancer drugs far outweighs that spent on developing new antibiotics or antidepressants, and advances in diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other cancer treatments, continue to be made. These can be expensive however, and waiting lists unacceptably long, in an increasingly stressed healthcare system. Also, conventional medicine is not always effective in the treatment of cancer and in many patients, its adverse effects and a relatively poor risk versus benefit rationale, are reasons for exploring herbal and other natural treatments.
Consequently, there is a huge amount of material on the subject available online, in magazines and books, including websites offering cancer cures through expensive clinic programmes, or ‘ready to take’ products that are heavily marketed. Soon after informing friends, colleagues and family, newly diagnosed patients tend to be inundated with suggestions and recommendations to take a wide range of ‘herbal remedies’, ‘dietary supplements’, ‘superfoods’ and other ‘alternative treatments’, several promising a cure, and strongly advocating against conventional treatments. Care should be taken with all of these.
It’s fairly well known that a large percentage of chemotherapeutic drugs for cancer and leukaemia treatment are molecules identified and isolated from plants or their synthetic equivalents or close derivatives. Research on herbs has led to the development of anti-cancer drugs such as vincristine, vinblastine, paclitaxel, docetaxel, etoposide, teniposide and more.
These are however, strong and individual chemicals found in or derived from plants, they are not the plants themselves. It is inappropriate to extrapolate from the anticancer effects of large doses of these drugs (often given by injection rather than orally), and to claim that a plant extract from which chemotherapy drugs have been developed will also exhibit significant anticancer properties. Also, successful traditional uses of most of these plants for the treatment (as opposed to prevention) of cancer in humans is in fact poorly established. Finally, the likelihood of something that kills cancer cells in vitro (in laboratory cultures) doing the same thing when taken orally by human patients, is actually pretty low, just as the diabetes drug insulin is poorly absorbed when taken orally, and needs to be administered by injection.
Of more relevance from a scientific evidence-based perspective, are herbs and natural products that show useful outcomes (efficacy) when used in studies involving rats and mice (rodents). We now know that the mouse and human genomes are approximately 85% identical, meaning that if something works in mice, it has a reasonable chance of also working in humans. A 2005 Canadian study that found daily oral ingestion of Echinacea purpurea root from the age of 6 weeks until death from natural causes (‘old age’) reduced the incidence of spontaneous tumours and prolonged the life expectancy of mice, is therefore highly relevant(1, 2). This type of study should be given more prominence than claims that oral administration of Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus, the source of the anti-cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine), can help fight cancer.
The best contribution that most herbs make is in fact related to their preventive effects against human cancers, just as a diet rich in vegetables and low in or excluding red meat is now well established to do the same. Well-known herbs and spices such as ginger, garlic, turmeric, rosemary, nasturtium and watercress, are just some for which compelling evidence now exists as to their prophylactic properties. Incorporating these and many others into the diet or taking as a tonic on a regular basis, is likely to help reduce the likelihood of developing many different types of cancer.
When it comes to management of patients with a cancer diagnosis, one of the most promising contributions that herbs can make, is as adjunctive treatments to be taken alongside the anti-cancer drugs and other conventional interventions that modern medicine now has available. Evidence from a large number of animal studies and a growing number of human clinical trials, now strongly supports this approach, key outcomes being to help increase the chances of achieving remission, and/or reduce the likelihood of treatment-related adverse effects such as infertility and fatigue. Sadly, however, most of my cancer patients don’t come to see me until either after they have undergone chemotherapy, or where it is no longer an option, and a small number firmly opt against conventional treatment. This is perfectly their right and completely understandable, but may not have been their decision if they had been informed of the valuable contribution an individualised concurrent herbal treatment regimen can sometimes make.
It is in fact a reflection of the widespread lack of acknowledgement and appropriate regulation of highly trained medical herbalists, that most people’s view of virtually all herbs and herbal products, is that they are only things to be sourced from ‘over the counter’ (OTC) or internet outlets. This is a far cry from their view of drugs, where when suffering from most debilitating or serious conditions, the prescribing expertise of a medical practitioner or specialist such as an oncologist, is sought prior to embarking upon drug treatments.
While proactive selfcare should be actively encouraged as the best preventive approach to cancer and other illnesses. However, once cancer is diagnosed, while herbs are rarely a magic cure, seeking the best professional advice rather than relying on google apps or recommendations from those not trained in herbal medicine, is highly recommendable.
- Brousseau M, Miller Enhancement of natural killer cells and increased survival of aging mice fed daily Echinacea root extract from youth. Biogerontology. 2005;6(3):157-63.
Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Sep;2(3):309-14.