Before the development of the modern medical system, physicians used plants and herbs to care for patients. They created remedies from seeds, leaves, flowers, roots and bark.
Today, doctors rely less on herbal remedies and other alternative treatments. That’s mostly because they have access to laboratory-created drugs.
Clinical trials that combine herbal medicine with cancer therapies are relatively new to the United States. China has performed such trials since the early 1900s.
Cancer doctors rely on clinical trials to recommend treatments that are proven effective. The lack of clinical trials on herbal medicines has limited what doctors can safely recommend.
Some clinical trials show certain herbs may be able to:
- Minimally reduce cancer growth and spreading
- Boost chemotherapy
- Ease the side effects of cancer treatment
- Reduce cancer symptoms
- Boost the immune system
- Support overall wellness
On the other hand, some herbs can prevent chemotherapy and radiation therapy from killing cancer cells. Some herbs enhance the effect of chemotherapy in a toxic way that leads to unwanted side effects.
Herbs may seem harmless, but sometimes they can interfere with cancer treatment.
Doctors recommend patients avoid herbs during treatment. It won’t be safe until research can identify which herbs are safe to combine with cancer treatment.
Patients can instead seek out clinical trials that are safely testing herbs if they want to combine therapies.
Some clinical trials combine herbs and chemotherapy under controlled conditions. These trials closely monitor patients for any negative effects.
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Herbal Medicine Options for Cancer
Herbal medicines may provide similar benefits that traditional medicines provide, but usually with a milder effect.
These herbal remedies may come in the form of tablets or capsules, creams, teas or tinctures (alcohol-based concentrate).
Some traditional cancer medicines contain active herbal ingredients. For example, the mesothelioma chemotherapy drug paclitaxel (Taxol) comes from the bark of the yew tree.
Herbs used in cancer care may help to:
- Boost the immune system
- Attack cancer cells
- Slow cancer spreading (metastasis)
- Ease cancer symptoms
- Reduce treatment side effects
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designates most herbs as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe. But, patients must remember herbal remedies are still a type of medicine. Make sure to get approval first from your oncologist.
Herbal medicines often have a lower risk of side effects than traditional drugs. This is partially because they are less potent than pharmaceuticals.
For example, patients who use natural remedies for insomnia are less likely to experience dizziness, tremors or spasms than patients who use prescription pills such as benzodiazepines.
The side effects that do occur with herbal remedies are typically mild. Constipation is the most common. The likelihood of dependency is also lower for herbal remedies.
Herbal Medicines for Immune Support
Herbal medicines used to improve overall wellness work by strengthening the patient’s immune system. A healthy immune system makes a person less susceptible to infection. It may also help attack cancer cells.
Some of these herbs include astragalus, black cumin and ashwgandha. Cat’s claw is another immune-enhancing supplement. Cat’s claw also possesses powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
An herbal tea blend known as Essiac tea contains herbs known for their immune-boosting effects such as burdock root. This tea is popular among the alternative cancer care community. Research shows Essiac tea doesn’t cure cancer, but it does contain more antioxidants than red wine or green tea.
Laboratory research shows burdock root has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-cancer and liver-protecting properties. It hasn’t been proven to cure cancer, but it may reduce inflammation. It may also help people recover from liver damage after cancer treatment.
It should be noted that a commercially available type of burdock root tea was found contaminated with atropine in the 1970s. Atropine is a chemical that causes irregular heartbeat and blurry vision. Cancer patients should closely monitor the effects of any herb they try.
Traditional Chinese medicine uses the herb dong quai to support overall wellness. The herb may offer additional benefits to mesothelioma patients. Several studies found dong quai can protect the body from heart damage caused by doxorubicin and lung inflammation caused by radiation therapy.
Some herbal medicines may kill certain cancer cells. Examples include kanglaite, Zedoariae rhizoma and Moringa oleifera.
The combination of 12 herbs known as jin fu kang may kill cancer cells. Jin fu kang is known in China for attacking lung cancer cells.
Other herbal medicines block new blood vessels from forming. These herbs cut off the blood supply necessary for cancerous cells to multiply. Herbs in this category include bindweed, boswellia, Chinese skullcap, Chinese magnolia and ginger.
A few herbs may block cancer in other ways. For example, graviola blocks sugar absorption. This means it may reduce a cancer’s energy supply. An herb called huanglian may reduce cancer growth.
Hypericin, a part of St. John’s Wort, may help kill cancer cells. It makes mesothelioma cells more likely to die after photodynamic therapy.
Trials on astragalus show it improves the effects of platinum-based chemotherapy agents such as cisplatin and carboplatin. These are the two most effective chemotherapy drugs for mesothelioma.
Make sure you discuss astragalus with your oncologist because it is a potent herb. It can alter the way your body processes chemotherapy in ways that may help or hurt depending on the patient.
Other herbs that may have anti-cancer effects:
- Ginger shows anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects in lab studies. It can also reduce chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. But, ginger should be strictly avoided before and after surgery. It promotes bleeding and should be avoided by patients with a low platelet count.
- Goldenseal blocked the growth of prostate, breast and brain cancer cells in laboratory research. But, it has not been shown to treat or prevent cancer in human studies. Herbalists recommend it for infections because of its antibiotic effects.
- Aloe vera lab studies show it can slow spreading of liver and esophageal cancer cells. Taking aloe vera during chemotherapy helped prevent mouth sores in some patients.
- Licorice also helped with mouth sores among radiation therapy patients. It showed anti-cancer effects in breast and prostate cancer cells.
- Dandelion root extract showed anti-cancer effects on melanoma, pancreatic, colorectal and leukemia cells in a lab. Few human studies have been conducted with this herb. It may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
- Milk thistle is an antioxidant and it shows anti-cancer effects against prostate and colon cancer cells. But, it also promoted liver cancer when combined with alcohol in an animal study.
- Mistletoe extracts, also known as Iscador, have shown anti-cancer effects in animal and human studies. The research done in humans shows mistletoe reduces symptoms and improves quality of life. It also reduces side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in lung, breast, pancreatic and colorectal cancers. Patients with those cancers were able to tolerate higher doses of gemcitabine (a chemotherapy drug used to treat mesothelioma) with the addition of mistletoe.
- Turmeric contains curcumin. Research shows that curcumin extract may be safe to combine with gemcitabine chemotherapy in pancreatic cancer patients. Turmeric is used as an anti-inflammatory. It may reduce bruising in surgery patients when combined with bromelain (an extract from pineapples) and arnica (an herbaceous plant).
Herbs for Treatment Side Effects
|Side Effect||Herbal Medicines|
|Nausea or vomiting||Ginger, Marijuana, Grape Seed, Peppermint, Roman Chamomile|
|Appetite loss||Marijuana, Dandelion, Devil’s Claw, Lemon Balm, Siberian Ginseng|
|Diarrhea||Bilberry, Blackberry Leaf, Chamomile, Huanglian, Marshmallow Root|
|Constipation||Aloe Vera, Fenugreek, Ragweed, Senna, Psyllium|
|Fatigue||Astragalus, Chlorella, Ginkgo Biloba, Gotu Kola|
|Skin irritation||Calendula, Holy Basil, Milk Thistle, Panax Ginseng|
Herbs for Mesothelioma Symptoms
|Pain||Marijuana, Boswellia, Curcumin/Turmeric, White Willow Bark, Arnica|
|Shortness of breath||Hawthorn, Eucalyptus, Lobelia, White Pine Bark|
|Coughing||Black Cohosh, Slippery Elm Bark, White/Western Yarrow|
|Anxiety or stress||Kava, Passionflower, Magnolia Bark|
|Depression||St. John’s Wort, Valerian|
|Sleeplessness or insomnia||Passionflower, Valerian, Chamomile|
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Precautions for Using Herbal Medicine
Herbal medicines may be less likely to cause side effects than traditional drugs. But, patients can still experience complications. Closely monitor how you feel before and after taking herbal remedies.
Patients can look for one or more of the following quality labels on their herbal supplements:
- GAP (Good Agricultural Practice)
- GLP (Good Laboratory Practice)
- GSP (Good Supply Practice)
- GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice)
Herbal supplements do not have to undergo FDA testing before reaching the market. Some patients have unknowingly bought supplements contaminated with arsenic, lead and mercury.
To avoid contaminated herbs, patients should only buy products from reputable companies with a United States Pharmacopeia (USP) label.
Although some herbs may be able to slow cancer growth, patients should avoid herbal medicines that are marketed as cures for cancer. These remedies are often produced without any scientific evidence to support the manufacturer’s claim.
Some herbs can cause negative interactions with chemotherapy drugs. Others may prevent blood from clotting properly after surgery.
Patients should always consult with their doctor before trying herbs to avoid complications.
Talk with Your Oncologist
The importance of discussing herbal remedies with your oncologist before buying or trying them cannot be stressed enough.
All too often patients hide the supplements and herbs they want to take from their doctor. Your oncologist has your best interest at heart and only wants to protect you from potentially harmful interactions.
In many cases, your doctor will give their approval to take herbal remedies after you complete treatment.
You can also inquire about joining a clinical trial that is investigating an herb in combination with cancer treatment. These trials are not common, but they do closely monitor patients for harmful interactions. They take the precautions necessary to prevent unwanted side effects such as testing herbs for contaminants before administration.
A common misconception is that natural products can’t be harmful. Or that they are always safe to combine with pharmaceutical medications.
Many natural substances, such as arsenic and tobacco, are poisonous and carcinogenic. The effects of herbs can range from mild to potent depending on the person taking them and the medications they are using.
It is wise to thoroughly research the herbs you want to try and take your research to your oncologist. This allows your doctor to advise you with as much information as possible.
New research on herbs and cancer treatment is underway. New research may change the way doctors perceive natural remedies. Herbs may help cancer patients, but the timing makes all the difference when it comes to protecting patients from harmful interactions.
Do your research, be diligent to buy quality products and do your best to protect yourself and your health.
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Last Modified July 25, 2019