Herbal medicine is a complementary and alternative treatment option used by many people with mesothelioma. Cancer patients turn to herbal medicine to relieve symptoms and ease side effects caused by chemotherapy and other therapies.
Before the development of the modern medical system, physicians used plants and herbs to treat patients. They created remedies from seeds, leaves, flowers, roots and bark. Now that U.S. physicians have access to laboratory-created drugs, they rely less on herbal remedies and other alternative treatments.
Eastern medicine still employs herbs in cancer treatment plans, but Western medicine only recently began to accept the supportive role of herbs for cancer care. Clinical trials that incorporate herbal medicine with conventional cancer therapies are relatively new to the U.S., while China has performed such trials since the early 1900s.
Clinical trials and scientific studies prove select herbs can:
Conversely, herbs can prevent chemotherapy and radiation therapy from killing cancer cells, and some herbs enhance the effect of chemotherapy in a toxic way that leads to unwanted side effects.
Oncologists recommend patients wait until after cancer treatment is complete to use herbal remedies. Some clinical trials have combined herbs and chemotherapy under controlled conditions and closely monitor patients for any ill effects.
Until research can identify which herbs are safe to combine with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, cancer patients should avoid them during treatment. Patients can instead seek out clinical trials that are safely testing herbs if they want to combine therapies.
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Herbal medicines provide some of the same benefits traditional medicines provide, but usually with a milder effect. Herbal remedies can help patients reduce symptoms, recover from the side effects of cancer treatment, inhibit cancer growth and improve their overall quality of life.
These therapies may come in the form of tablets or capsules, creams, teas or tinctures (alcohol-based concentrate).
Many traditional cancer medicines contain active herbal ingredients. For instance, the mesothelioma chemotherapy drug paclitaxel (Taxol) is derived from the bark of the yew tree.
However, by isolating a single herbal compound and recreating it in a laboratory, manufacturers eliminate the other compounds that complemented the main healing ingredient. They also add a number of stabilizing chemicals and fillers. Most herbalists believe this diminishes the herb’s original healing properties.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designates most herbs as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe. However, patients must remember herbal remedies are still a type of medicine and their use should always be supervised by your oncologist.
Herbal medicines have a far lower risk of side effects than traditional drugs, partially because they are less potent than pharmaceuticals. For instance, patients who use natural remedies for insomnia are less likely to experience dizziness, tremors or spasms than patients who use benzodiazepines.
The rare side effects that do accompany herbal remedies are typically mild — constipation is the most common. The likelihood of dependency is also lower for herbal remedies.
Herbs used in cancer care may boost the immune system, attack cancer cells, inhibit cancer spreading (metastasis), ease cancer symptoms and reduce treatment side effects.
Most of the herbal medicines used to improve overall wellness work by strengthening the patient’s immune system. A healthy immune system makes the body stronger, less susceptible to infection and more proficient at naturally eliminating cancer cells.
Some of these herbs include astragalus, black cumin and ashwgandha. Cat’s claw is another immune-enhancing supplement, and it 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 and help people recover from liver damage after cancer treatment. It should be noted that a commercially available preparation of burdock root tea was contaminated with atropine, 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 doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity and radiation-induced pneumonitis.
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Some herbal medicines can induce apoptosis (cell death), including kanglaite, Zedoariae rhizoma and Moringa oleifera. The combination of 12 herbs known as jin fu kang can also induce apoptosis, especially in lung cancer cells.
Other herbal medicines have anti-angiogenic properties. 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 can inhibit cancer in other ways. Graviola, for example, inhibits glucose supplementation, indicating it may deplete a tumor’s energy supply. Huanglian may block the activity that leads to cell division and subsequent tumor growth.
Several clinical trials have also found hypericin — a component of St. John’s Wort — makes certain cancer cells, including 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, which are the two most effective chemotherapy drugs for mesothelioma.
Make sure you discuss astragalus with your oncologist because it is a potent herb that can alter the way your body processes chemotherapy in ways that may help or hurt depending on the patient.
Other herbs with anti-cancer properties:
Several herbs are reported to help control the side effects of traditional cancer treatment.
|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|
Mesothelioma patients may use herbal medicines to address certain cancer symptoms such as pain and difficulty breathing.
|Pain||Marijuana, Boswellia, Circumin/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|
While herbal medicines are less likely to cause side effects than traditional drugs, 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:
Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbal supplements do not have to undergo FDA testing before reaching the market. Some patients have unknowingly bought supplements contaminated with toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury. To avoid contaminated herbs, patients should only purchase products from reputable companies with a United States Pharmacopeia (USP) label.
Although some herbs can inhibit 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 or prevent blood from clotting properly after surgery. To avoid these complications, patients should always consult with their doctor before adding an herbal supplement to their treatment regimen.
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 and take the precautions necessary to prevent unwanted side effects such as testing herbs for contaminants before administration.
A common misconception is natural products can’t be harmful and 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 so they can advise you with as much information as possible.
New research on herbs and cancer treatment is becoming widely available and is changing the way doctors perceive natural remedies. There is no doubt that herbs can 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.
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.
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