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The Value of Herbs in the Treatment of Cancer

By Lawrence Miller

Of all conditions which the herbalist/traditional Chinese medical doctor may treat, cancer represents a major test of the herbal tools we have at our disposal. A common and largely accurate perception of the damaging effects of malignancy is that "if the cancer doesn’t kill you, the biomedical treatments for it will." This statement, while accurate in some regards, doesn’t take into account the growing effectiveness of chemotherapy against many forms of cancer. Determining the effectiveness of biomedicine must be considered within a long-term perspective, however; survival rates are commonly measured in 5- and 10-year intervals, while a "cure" is considered when a cancer survivor has been cancer-free for seven years after cessation of treatment. The issues surrounding human health and the sequelae of malignancy are not as simple as these statistics suggest, however. While some rapidly growing forms of cancer may develop within ten days to two weeks of cancer cell implantation (malignant melanoma, for example), other slower-growing tumors (consider prostate cancer) may take up to ten years to make themselves detectable. To use the term "cured" for a patient who remains cancer-free after seven years is both unrealistic and arbitrary, given the unpredictability of cancer.

Aside from whether or not a cancer survivor is presently ‘cancer-free’, also of consideration is the general state of health of the individual, which oncology tends to disregard. Of primary concern to the oncologist is whether malignancies have redeveloped, not whether conditions exist which may portend the derangement of cellular processes which could ultimately lead to loss of differentiation. This is one of the most appropriate and effective roles the TCM doctor/herbalist can fulfill—to help reestablish an underlying balance in the individual, and to unravel the complex patterns inherent in the body which can, if left untreated, lead to the development of cancer.

Another appropriate role for TCM doctors and advanced herbalists is in the use of herbs as an adjunct to ongoing biomedical treatment for existing cancer. This can be addressed using any or all of three main approaches: 1) to offset the damaging side-effects of radiation and chemotherapy; 2) to benefit the patient’s immune system, which biomedicine overwhelms and supplants with its powerful agents; and 3) to aid in tumor reduction itself, potentially shortening the length of time the patient needs to receive radiation and/or chemotherapy.

Listed below are ten herbs from the Chinese and western herbal traditions which address this third treatment approach--tumor reduction itself, via their 'antineoplastic' action. Consider that different forms of malignancy are treated with different substances, and each individual case may require entirely separate treatment principles, suggesting that anti-neoplastic herb choices must be chosen from appropriate categories of action. Obviously, there are more than 10 herbs with antineoplastic action in the Chinese and western pharmacopeia, but these can be considered a 'jumping off' point for further study; this is my personal intent. Information provided on these herbs is based on both empirical and clinical evidence gathered third-hand; verification of clinical and/or empirical findings is difficult to provide without access to the studies themselves, and no guarantees are made for these herbs’ effectiveness. References for all information is provided below.

Chinese Herbs:

Common Name: Oldenlandia
Chinese Name: Bai He She She Cao
Latin: Herba Hedyotidis Diffusae/Oldenlandia Diffusae
Family: Rubiaceae
TCM Category: Clear Heat/Relieve Toxicity
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--Used in treatment of stomach, esophageal and colon cancer;
--Activates reticuloendothelial system and increases phagocytosis by lymphocytes. Also, in high concentrations shows inhibitory affect in vitro on cells from acute lymphocytic and granulocytic leukemia.

Common Name: Selaginaella
Chinese Name: Shi Shang Bai
Latin: Herba Selaginellae Doederleinii
Family: Selaginellaceae
TCM Category: Clear Heat/Relieve Toxicity
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--Mice inoculated with granuloma-180 and injected with Shi Shang Bai showed 40-50% tumor inhibition of tumors; Mice with hepatic cancer lived significantly longer than control group not treated with Shi Shang Bai.
--Helpful in treatment of lung and throat cancer, and malignant hydatidiform moles, with remission in 50% of patients. Commonly used in China in treatment of smaller body cancers in nose, throat, lung and liver. When used with chemotherapy and radiation shown to accelerate cancer remissions.

Common Name: Sophora Root
Chinese Name: Shan Dou Gen
Latin: Radix Sophorae Tonkinensis
Family: Leguminaceae
TCM Category: Clear Heat/Relieve Toxicity
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--In doses of 60g/kg had significant effect in treatment of cervical cancer in mice, and an inhibitory affect on sarcoma-180. Used in treatment of acute lymphocytic/granulocytic leukemia, inhibiting dehydrogenase activity and cellular respiration of malignant cells.

Common Name: Zedoania
Chinese Name: E Zhu
Latin: Rhizoma Curcumae Ezhu
Family: Zingeberaceae
TCM Category: Invigorate Blood
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--Inhibits granuloma-180, often combined with San Leng (Rhizoma Sparganii Stoloniferi).
–-In China, 80 cases of cervical cancer patients were treated with a solution of Zedoania, which was injected directly into the tumor sites. 30 patients were completely cured, while 15 were found to have a 50% size reduction.

Common Name: Rhubarb Root and Rhizome
Chinese Name: Da Huang
Latin: Radix et Rhizoma Rhei
Family: Polygonaceae
TCM Category: Clear Heat/Relieve Toxicity

Antineoplastic Action(s): --Injected subcutaneously had a killing effect on neoplastic granulomas in mice. Inhibited growth of melanoma, breast tumor cells and ascitic hepatic carcinoma in humans via the actions of emodin and rhein, major constituents of Da Huang.

Western Herbs:

Common Name: Red Clover
Latin: Flos Trifolium pratense
Family: Papilionaceae
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--Red Clover contains isoflavone compounds, such as genistein, which have weak estrogen properties. Various laboratory studies show that these isoflavones may help prevent and combat malignant tumors, especially of the breast and prostate.

Common Name: Pau D’Arco, Lapacho, Taheebo
Latin: Tabebuia impestiginosa
Family: Rubiaceae
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--Lapachol and beta-lapachone (known collectively as naphthaquinones) are two primary active compounds in Pau D’Arco. These compounds have anti-cancer/anti-tumor properties, although the effective dosage is considered toxic; Pau D’Arco is commonly used in the treatment of cancer in Central and South America with good results.

Common Name: Mistletoe
Latin: Viscum alba
Family: Loranthaceae
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--Contains anti-tumor proteins, and has been shown by current cancer research in Germany to have antineoplastic activity.

Common Name: Cleavers
Latin: Galium aparine
Family: Rubiaceae
Antineoplastic Action(s):
--Cleavers is considered the best lymphatic tonic in the western herbal pharmacopoeia, and is both alterative and diuretic. It has a long tradition of use for tumor reduction and lymphatic drainage, especially indicated when cancer has nodal involvement.

Common Name: Sweet Violet
Latin: Flos Viola odorata
Family: Violaceae
Antineoplastic Action(s):

--Sweet Violet has a long tradition and reputation as an anti-cancer herb, used especially as a poultice for cancers of the skin. Current scientific research has yet to bear out this reputation in the clinical setting


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