Using Traditional Chinese Medicine to Treat Lung Cancer

Astragalus herb leaves

As the average Chinese cancer patient is hooked up to receive chemotherapy, astragalus – a common medicinal herb in China – is already at work in their cells, reportedly easing side effects, increasing tumor response, reducing chemotherapy toxicity and improving survival.

While the use of medicinal herbs continues to be an integral part of Chinese culture and treatment, the average American cancer patient has never even heard that herbs can improve chemotherapy results.

Why are Westerners so in the dark about the prevalence of Chinese clinical trials that unite natural medicine with conventional cancer therapy?

The answer to that question likely involves a number of factors, such as pressure from Big Pharma to ignore plant medicine, lack of funding for herbal studies in the U.S., and the reluctance of Western doctors to recommend natural remedies.

Recent reviews of thousands of Chinese clinical trials have analyzed the use and benefits of Chinese herbs in cancer treatment, and results might surprise you.

Chinese Herbs for Lung Conditions

Approximately 133 Chinese herbs have been historically used to treat lung cancer.

The herbs used most frequently for lung cancer tend to exhibit healing effects on the lungs and stimulating effects to the immune system. Because mesothelioma is such a rare cancer, no clinical trials on Chinese herbs for mesothelioma have been conducted. As a result, lung cancer trials are currently serving as resources for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners working with mesothelioma patients.

A 2013 review of 24 Chinese clinical trials on non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) found the following TCM herbs as the most commonly used:

  • Astragalus: One of the most widely used herbs in TCM, astragalus root is a proven immune booster. According to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s research, astragalus inhibits tumor growth, thwarts tumor spreading, reduces the immune-suppressing effects of chemotherapy, and may enhance the effects of platinum-based chemotherapy drugs like cisplatin and carboplatin. One study reported improved quality of life among NSCLC patients taking astragalus injection during chemotherapy with cisplatin and vinorelbine.
  • Nan Sha Shen: Also known as American silvertop root, it acts as an antibiotic and is prescribed for a dry cough with little phlegm. One study injected the herb into the peritoneum and reported a reduction in inflammation, vascular permeability and cancer-promoting compounds.
  • Gan Cao: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), gan cao, also known as licorice root, is a clinically proven expectorant that accelerates mucus secretion. TCM doctors prescribe the herb to relieve cough and shortness of breath.
  • Poria: Patients experiencing edema (fluid retention beneath the skin) can turn to poria, also known as fu ling. The herb is an effective diuretic, can reduce production of phlegm, and can help insomnia patients sleep better.
  • Oldenlandia diffusa: Known as snake-needle grass in the U.S., this herb has demonstrated anticancer and chemopreventative effects in laboratory and animal studies. The herb causes cancer cells to die (apoptosis) and it stimulates the immune system to hunt out and destroy tumor cells. One study also reported anti-inflammatory effects through the reduced production of tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin-6 and prostaglandin-2, all of which are commonly overexpressed in mesothelioma cancer.
  • Asparagus root: Though the studies conducted on asparagus root to examine its biological effects have only been conducted on mice, evidence shows anticancer activity against leukemia and lung cancer. One study found that asparagus root inhibited the production of tumor necrosis factor alpha.
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Another common treatment for lung cancer in China is jin fu kang, a blend of 12 herbal extracts, including astragalus.

Developed at the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine specifically for the treatment of lung cancer, the formula was clinically tested for decades and was approved by the Chinese drug administration in 1999. Lung cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who also take jin fu kang have increased survival rates when compared to chemotherapy treatment alone.

Another herbal blend that is used to treat lung cancer is yangzheng xiaoji, a formula of 14 herbs traditionally used to treat cancer in TCM. Recent studies of the herbal blend found that it inhibits the spread of cancer cells (both the migration and adhesion of cancer cells) and that it works synergistically with chemotherapy.

The Science of Natural Remedies

Though rare in the U.S., clinical trials on natural remedies are common in China and other Asian nations.

A separate 2013 review of nearly 3,000 Chinese clinical trials on cancer dating back to 1911 reported that 72 percent of the studies combined conventional cancer treatment with Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The most frequently reported benefits of TCM in these cancer studies included:

  • Clinical symptom improvement (56 percent)
  • Biomarker level improvement (42 percent)
  • Quality of life improvement (38 percent)
  • Reduction of treatment side effects (37 percent)
  • Reduced tumor size (29 percent)

Research is revealing more on exactly how herbs have an impact on cancer, and the evidence suggests that certain compounds inside plants can have a powerful impact on the immune system.

When Art and Medicine Collide

The intricacies of Chinese herbal medicine and how specific herbs are prescribed to each individual patient is commonly referred to as a fine art. The TCM practitioner considers many individual aspects of each patient before prescribing herbs.

A complete medical history of the patient is considered along with a full assessment of their current state of health. The questions a TCM doctor may ask and the physical examination they conduct may appear different from traditional Western doctors. For example, your tongue may be examined or the doctor may check the outside of your ear for signs of internal disease (the latter is a part of acupuncture philosophy).

Many details about your health will be collected and deeply considered when considering which herbs to prescribe. As a result, it isn’t highly recommended for someone to start taking Chinese herbs without consulting an experienced TCM doctor.

Working with a licensed TCM practitioner can make the process of obtaining and taking Chinese herbs easier for patients. TCM doctors not only know the best sources for Chinese herbs, they can also blend each patient’s unique prescription of various herbs into one capsule to simplify administration.


Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. If you have a story idea for Michelle, please email her at michelle@asbestos.com.

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