Cancer Treatment: The Effectiveness of Herbal Medicines

With the growing interest in integrative medicine, combining Eastern and Western philosophies to treat the mind, body and spirit, there has been much interest in complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapies for cancer treatment. Recently I wrote about common complementary and alternative therapies for cancer treatment; here we will explore the use of herbs as a complementary approach to treating cancer.

Chinese medicine is based on a system of balances; treatments often incorporate the use of herbs. In fact, Chinese medicine makes use of more than 10,000 herbs! Some herbs are very mild and have been likened to Western preventative tonics, such as taking a daily aspirin. Others, however, are very potent and can cause serious side effects. It’s very important to exercise caution when taking herbs, and avoid indiscriminate use. Research on the use of herbs has been limited, so make certain that the person you are seeking advice from is knowledgeable and experienced in this field.

Using Herbs During Cancer Treatment

Herbs may be helpful in certain settings where the patient is not undergoing drug therapy, or the interactions are known. However, the general consensus in the medical community is that most herbs should be minimized or avoided altogether during cancer treatment with drugs.

The reason for this recommendation is to avoid potentially harmful interactions. Herbs can be very powerful. In fact, some chemotherapy drugs, such as Vinca alkaloids and Taxol, are derived from herbs. If you are currently taking herbs, or recently completed an herbal regimen, make sure you tell your doctor.

Common Herbs & Their Medicinal Uses

The following is a list of commonly used herbs:

  • Antioxidants. Many foods naturally contain antioxidants; in this form, they do not seem to cause important interactions with drugs. However, several chemotherapy drugs have significant interactions with herbal forms of antioxidants, which should be avoided during chemotherapy cancer treatment.
  • Australagus. There is some lab evidence that it may improve the immune system, but there is no good clinical evidence in patients to support this.
  • Echinacea. This herb is an immune stimulant. Generally it should not be used for more than 8 weeks at a time. It is not recommended during radiation or chemotherapy. Do not take echinacea if you have lupus or HIV/AIDS. Also avoid if you are taking methotrexate or cyclosporine.
  • Essiac. Made up of 4 herbs, and developed by a nurse who used it to treat her breast cancer. Studies have not confirmed any benefit to taking essiac for cancer treatment.
  • Ginger. Ginger is useful for treating nausea during chemotherapy. Between 0.5"“2.0 grams a day is recommended. You can make your own ginger tea by slicing ginger root and steeping it in a few cups of hot water, or you can also use crystallized ginger. Do not take ginger if your platelets are low.
  • Milk Thistle. Milk thistle occurs naturally in artichokes. Historically, milk thistle has been used to protect the liver, as a treatment for alcoholism and cirrhosis. Not proven for use in cancer patients.
  • Mistletoe. Mistletoe has been approved in Europe as an adjuvant tumor therapy for cancer patients, but it is not approved in the US. Mistletoe has not been shown to be effective in human therapy, but it does kill cancer cells in the laboratory. No anti-tumor response has been shown.
  • St. John’s Wort. St. John’s Wort is a mood enhancer and is often used to treat depression. On its own, St. John’s Wort can help mood, but when taken with other drugs, it can be dangerous. It alters the liver’s metabolism and makes the chemo drugs less available to the body. St. John’s Wort is not recommended for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Mushrooms. Two types of mushrooms have been used to inhibit the growth of tumors. Shiitake mushrooms have inhibited tumor growth in the lab and have proven effective in animals, but are not proven in humans. The effectiveness of maitake mushrooms is currently being assessed in clinical trials. Does have tumor inhibition in the lab and is mediated by the immune system of the body. Not recommended during chemotherapy for cancer treatment at present.

Exercise Caution with These Herbs

As mentioned earlier, herbs can have a powerful effect or cause interactions with other cancer treatments, so don't forget to talk to your doctor if you are taking herbs during treatment, or if you plan to take any herbs. Also:

  • Avoid taking gingko biloba, garlic, ginger, ginseng and feverfew if you are planning surgery, as they can prolong bleeding.
  • Avoid taking St. John's Wort, kava kava and valerian if you are going to get anesthesia.

Editor’s Note: The information that appears here has been abstracted from its original source, with permission. Author: Festa, Bernadette. Full article text: Integrative Medicines "“ Herbal Medicines.