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Treating the Undesirable Effects of Radiation and Chemotherapy with Chinese Medicine

By Z'ev Rosenberg, L. Ac., Dipl. Ac.

From "Oriental Medicine Journal "

As Chinese medicine becomes more available as a system accessible to the general public, more and more people suffering with cancer are coming to utilize the rejuvenating effects of the Chinese herbal, acumoxa, dietary and qigong therapies to prolong life and aid in their recovery from this powerful illness. Although Chinese medicine has evolved primary treatments for the treatment of cancer, in this country there are still legal problems with this approach, and most western cancer patients at this time will choose to combine biomedical treatment with alternative therapies. Although a limited number of successes have been recorded with biomedical treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, time and research have shown limitations to success, and the search for better treatments and cures continues. Many forms of cancer, although proven to be unresponsive to chemotherapy, continue to be treated by this method. Often chemotherapy, surgery and radiation will cause damage to healthy as well as to diseased tissues, and weaken the immune system. This is where Chinese medicine can be very helpful.

The concept of "side effects" is not recognized as such in Chinese medicine. The toxic effects of certain medicinals is recognized according to degree, and if it is necessary to use a 'toxic' substance medicinally, it will be prepared in a special manner or combined with other medicinals to reduce or eliminate toxicity if possible. For example, fu zi/rx. aconiti is considered toxic, but it has a very strong medicinal power to mobilize and rescue yang qi to the spleen and kidney. It is usually combined in Chinese herbal prescriptions with sheng jiang/rx. zingiberis and gan cao/rx. glycyrhhizae to neutralize the toxic effect. Sometimes the principle of du yao gong xie/use toxin to attack pathogenic evil is used clinically; we can look at the modern use of chemotherapy according to this principle, if not in the degree of its clinical application in biomedicine. In Chinese medicine, it is considered unthinkable to damage the host or the zheng qi/correct qi in any clinical intervention.

Chinese herbal medicine treats the use of most chemotherapeutic agents and radiation as "heat toxins" that damage the yin and qi. However, such chemotherapy drugs as cisplatin lower sperm counts (weaken jing/essence), cause stomatitis (heart fire), diarrhea (damage to spleen qi), hearing loss, and leukopenia. In Chinese medical analysis, cisplatin will kill fast-growing cells, such as mucosa and intestinal lining as well as cancer cells, weaken kidney jing and yang, weaken spleen yang, aggravate heart fire all at the same time . This shows the extreme effects of toxic substances on the body, which can cause damage to yin, yang, qi and blood, and cause extreme hot and cold reactions concurrently. In Chinese cancer hospitals, the use of chemotherapy and radiation are often combined with the use of herbal medicine to protect the body/mind from damage as much as possible. Dosages of chemotherapeutic drugs also tends to be lower than in western countries. In my opinion, it makes clinical sense to use the least toxic dose possible of anti- cancer drugs, radiation or surgery given concurrently with herbal prescriptions to protect the body and zheng qi/correct qi from damage. This may help relieve discomfort and suffering to the patient, and also minimize the suppression of immune function. This is a realistic expectation, considering the more lengthy goal of using Chinese herbs, diet, qigong and acumoxatherapy more extensively in cancer therapy in the west.. Presently, a practitioner of Chinese medicine may be asked to do the job of a "mop-up crew", cleaning up the side-effects of excessive drug treatment. In filling this demand, however, we can do much good. At the same time, this effort should not compromise us in seeing the shortcomings of this type of therapy.

In Chinese medicine, the optimum functioning of spleen/stomach qi is considered critical to life. According to the classics, when spleen/stomach qi is damaged or in decline, a patient's life and health are in danger. Chemotherapy drugs often will damage the lining of the stomach and intestines, leading to symptoms of nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and a burning sensation. The toxins produced by cancer cells will often weaken the spleen/stomach qi as well. Chinese adjunctive cancer therapy includes supporting the spleen/stomach qi and its function of digestion and assimilation. Formulas such as shen ling bai zhu tang/ Ginseng, Poria and Atractylodes Decoction and liu jun zi tang/Six Gentlemen Decoction are ideal for this purpose, containing herbs to strengthen the spleen/stomach such as Ren Shen/Ginseng and Bai Zhu/Atractylodes, as well as herbs to clear phlegm and damp such as Ban Xia/Pinellia and Chen Pi/Citrus Peel. These formulas could be either supplemented or replaced by Yin tonics in cases of extreme heat and/or dryness of the Stomach, which would be aggravated by this formula if used alone. However, many types of cancer show accumulation of phlegm and damp, and Six Gentlemen Decoction will be efficacious in these cases.

Supplementing the yin is also very important for many patients receiving conventional cancer treatment. the fire and toxin created by both radiation and most chemotherapeutic drugs, wastes the yin, leading to dry mouth, thirst, mouth sores, constipation and scanty, dark urination. The pulse may be rapid and thready, the tongue red, dry and cracked. The shen may also be disturbed by the heat buildup in the chest. Aggressive treatment over time can often disturb the kidney and heart/shao yin aspect, leading to insomnia, restlessness, disorientation, sterility, lower back pain, and palpitation. Formulas such as liu wei di huang wan/Rehmannia Six Flavor Pill, tian wang bu xin dan/Celestial Emperor's Heart Supplementing Pill, and zhi bai di huang wan/Anemerrhena, Phellodendron and Rehmannia Six Flavor Pill are very useful in these cases. When there are signs of lung and stomach yin vacuity, including stomach pain and burning, dry mouth, dry cough, dry skin, a peeled red tongue with scanty yellow coat, and a thin, thready, rapid pulse, sha shen mai dong yin/Glehnia and Ophiopogonis Cool Decoction is a choice formula. Finally, yi guan jian/Linking Decoction is very useful for liver and kidney yin vacuity with liver qi depression, a common pattern encountered with cancer patients.

It is important to support the zheng qi/correct qi to defend the body against the various forms of cancer, which can only thrive in a disordered body and mind. The weakening of zheng qi/correct qi by stress, environmental toxins, dietary and lifestyle indiscretions can take its toll, allowing cancer to proliferate, and even pass on a constitutional predisposition to the disease. The medicinal mushrooms are all very effective for strengthening and repairing body/mind intelligence and immune function. Both xiang gu/lentinus (shitake) and ling zhi/ganorderma (reishi) mushrooms have been shown to have strong anti-tumor effects in recent studies, and are powerful strengthening agents to the zheng qi . In the Shen Nung P'en Tsao/Divine Husbandman's Materia Medica, ling zhi is considered to be a "superior" herb, with strong supplementing properties to all of the yin viscera. In recent Chinese studies, it was also shown to be valuable in reducing the damaging effects to blood and yin from chemotherapy. Cordyceps/dong chong xia cao is another medicinal fungi from the Chinese pharmacoepia used to aid in recovery from a severe illness, and especially strengthens immune function.

Huang qi/astragalus is one of Chinese medicine's supreme qi supplementers, and has been shown to be the most effective herb to restore damaged immune systems. It is presently used routinely in oncology departments of Chinese hospitals. In a joint study between a Texas pharmaceutical company and a hospital in Beijing, it was found that astragalus was most effective when combined with nu zhen zi/ligustrum, another yin supplementing herb for the liver and kidney, which has been shown in modern studies to have a strong immune strengthening effect. Astragalus is a major component with ren shen/ginseng (also shown to have anti-tumor and immune- enhancement effects) in bu zhong yi qi tang/Supplement the Middle and Augment the Qi Decoction, a major yang and qi supplementing formula.

Many of the chemotherapy anti-cancer agents were discovered in the plant world. Today, massive searches and clinical trials are sponsored in the rain forests and wilderness regions around the world for new cancer cures. At the present time, clinical trials and research are being sponsored by pharmaceutical companies on Chinese herbs that have anti-cancer properties. Vincristine and vinblastine, taken from madadasgar periwinkle, were discovered by the Lilly drug company during clinical trials done on so-called "folk treatments" used in different cultures for cancer treatment. However, it may be that the vast herbal pharmacopia may be best utilized in the traditional method of polypharmacy, where many ingredients are combined to reduce and eliminate side effects while balancing all the systems of the body.

To conclude, Chinese herbal medicine is the therapy of choice in treating the side-effects of Western oncological treatments, and is proven in its effectiveness. However, we should not ignore the tremendous potential of Chinese medicine in the treatment of cancer as a major therapy in its own right.


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