The Role of Herbs in Treating CancerMichael Vertolli, RH July 1, 2005
Of all of the afflictions that plague humankind, there is none that is associated with greater fear than cancer. No matter how strong-willed or optimistic we are, there is always a part of us that interprets the diagnosis of cancer as a death sentence. The way modern medicine deals with cancer is largely responsible for our sense of impending doom. In communicating a prognosis, doctors don’t speak about curing the condition, they quote statistics about five-year survival rates and, in more severe cases, may even condemn us to a limited number of months to live.
There is no doubt that it would be unethical to talk about a cure given the poor track record of modern medicine in the treatment of cancer. In spite of decades of research and billions of dollars spent, very little has been achieved in relation to the expenditures. There have been some successes. Examples include childhood leukemia and a few less invasive forms such as prostate cancer, but there are very few people who have experienced a permanent remission of the illness after treatment. In most cases modern medicine can not even boast an ability to improve the quality of life of those who receive treatment except to help reduce the pain in the final stages of the illness. The side-effects of chemotherapy are often worse than the symptoms of the disease itself.
Contrary to popular opinion, cancer is not a single illness. The many different types of cancer are actually different conditions. The term “cancer” is derivative of the Latin word for crab (just like the astrological sign). It came into common usage because malignant tumors were once thought to grab onto surrounding tissues like the pincers of a crab. The technical name for these conditions is neoplasm, which literally means “new growth.”
There are many different kinds of neoplasms. They are classified according to the organ where they occur, the kind of cell that they originally grow from, and the degree of differentiation of the neoplastic cells. What characterizes them in general is that they are composed of cells that are less differentiated than normal cells, they don’t respond to the normal mechanisms that control the growth of cells, and they behave autonomously – they are out of synch with the surrounding tissues and the rest of the body.
A group of neoplastic cells is called a tumour. There are two kinds of tumours. Benign tumours have well-defined borders and only grow in the area where they first develop. Malignant tumours have poorly defined borders and grow into the surrounding tissues. The term cancer is usually only used to describe malignant tumours.
In time, malignant neoplasms can be life-threatening. The degree of risk is associated with how quickly they grow, the relative importance of the organ in which they occur, and the degree to which they metastasize (spread) throughout the body. Malignant tumours primarily destroy the surrounding tissues by growing into them and overcrowding normal cells, and by using up most of the oxygen and nutrients that the surrounding cells need to survive.
In general, benign tumours are not nearly as dangerous as malignant tumors, but benign tumours can also damage the surrounding tissue if they are large enough and exert too much pressure on the cells in their immediate proximity. If this occurs in tissues that perform a very critical function or in a way that impedes an essential body function, benign tumours may also be life-threatening.
All cells are subjected to a wide variety of stress factors as they perform their day-to-day functions. Of particular concern is toxic stress. Our body fluids include many endogenous (produced inside our body) and exogenous (coming from outside our body) toxins that have the potential to irritate or damage our cells. Endogenous toxins include cellular waste products, hormones and related substances when they are in excessive quantities, and chemicals altered by our liver or microorganisms that naturally live inside our body. Exogenous toxins include chemicals from microorganisms, food, water and air, and various forms of radiation.
When a cell is damaged by toxicity, but not killed, several things can happen. Firstly, the cell will attempt to utilize a variety of mechanisms to repair itself. If this doesn’t work, there is a built in self-destruct program that will cause the cell to die. In some instances, neither of these processes will work and the cell will become abnormal. When this occurs, it is the job of our immune system to recognize it as abnormal and destroy it. These processes are occurring all of the time throughout our body. In spite of the back-ups, occasionally abnormal cells survive and are not destroyed. This may lead to the development of a neoplasm.
EFFECTIVE CANCER PREVENTION
As with all serious illnesses, cancer is much easier to prevent than to treat. There are many dietary and lifestyle factors that have the potential to cause cancer and just as many that can help prevent it.
Since a major cause of cancer is exposure to chemical and radioactive toxicity, if we want to reduce our likelihood of developing cancer we need to reduce our exposure to these. It is important to eat foods that are certified organic as much as possible, reduce consumption of heavily processed foods, chemical additives, simple carbohydrates, rancid and trans-fats, and use of and exposure to chlorine and chemical cleaning products and solvents in our home and work place. We should also reduce exposure to sources of pollution as much as possible: drink filtered or clean spring water, minimize or avoid driving, walking, biking or exercising in areas where there is significant traffic congestion or other major sources of air pollution. Also avoid or minimize smoking anything.
To reduce exposure to harmful radiation, avoid excessive exposure to UV radiation from sunlight or tanning spas, working or living near large transformers or major hydro lines, only get X-rays when absolutely necessary, and reduce time spent watching TV, sitting in front of computer screens and using cell phones. For those who can afford them, flat screen TVs and computer monitors are preferred.
On the positive side, it is important to eat lots of fruits, vegetables and beans. These foods are loaded with hundreds of different kinds of antioxidants and other important constituents that help to protect our body from the harmful effects of carcinogenic toxins and boost our immune response. They are also good sources of fibre, which has additional preventive benefits. Soluble fibre is especially important. Good sources of soluble fibre are fruits, oats and whole flax seeds.
There are a number of nutritional supplements that also can help to prevent the development of cancer. The most important of these are the antioxidants. These include vitamins A, C, E and D, the carotenes, coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, and anthocyanin extracts such as those from grape seed, bilberry and pine bark. There are also a number of minerals that our body needs to make its own antioxidants. The most important are selenium, zinc and manganese.
The issue of antioxidants has become a bit controversial in the last few years. A number of recent studies seem to indicate that antioxidants are not effective or may be detrimental in some circumstances. There are some flaws in these studies and I believe that the results are inconclusive. Nevertheless, this demonstrates the potential difficulties in determining the benefits of natural substances when we start concentrating, extracting or synthesizing them rather than consuming them in their most natural form – in whole foods!
We live in an increasingly more stressful and toxic world. This puts additional stress on our body and I believe that some supplementation may be necessary. However, it is important to take groups of supplements in moderate doses and in the most natural form possible. For example, take vitamin E in the form of mixed tocopherols, carotene complexes instead of just beta-carotene, and include complex antioxidant plant extracts like grape seed. It is also important to remember that supplements are supplemental; they are not a replacement for a healthy, balanced diet. The best way to get a wide variety of natural antioxidants is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables – organic whenever possible.
Exercise is also critical. It is essential to ensure an adequate supply of nutrients and protective phytochemicals to our cells, and to help remove waste products and toxins from our tissues. It also reduces stress, boosts our immune system and speeds up bowel transit time.
THE ROLE OF MIND AND EMOTIONS IN CANCER
Chemical and radioactive stresses are not alone in being associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. There are psychological factors that are also important. Cancer often develops after a period of prolonged intense emotional stress or a single profoundly stressful event such as bereavement. It is associated with grief, depression or a sense of hopelessness.
It is not just stressful events or negative emotions that are important. What is more important is how we deal with them. This is largely a result of our basic personality traits. People who are at a greater risk are those who tend to suppress their emotions, project a calm, relatively unemotional persona, avoid conflict, lack assertiveness or self-esteem, and tend to focus more on providing for other people’s needs rather than satisfying their own. This is not to say that selfishness or egotism are more desirable traits than empathy. It’s a question of balance. We can be of more service to others when our own needs have been met and we are acting from a sense of confidence and clarity. It is not good, however, when our empathy stems from an inability or unwillingness to make an effort on our own behalf, a desire to avoid conflict or a tendency to allow ourselves to be dominated by others.
The general consensus is that intense stress and/or a tendency to repress our emotions and needs seem to contribute to the development of cancer by weakening our immune response. Another emotion that has a profound potential to weaken immune function is fear. This is very important because fear is pretty much a universal response to any diagnosis of cancer. To make matters worse, fear is the central theme of orthodox medical treatment. It begins with the initial diagnosis and prognosis. Then doctors will use fear as a means of scaring people into submitting to invasive and often dangerous treatments such radiation and chemotherapy. If that doesn’t work, they may even attack our self-esteem by questioning our sanity if we refuse the therapy. In defense of the doctors, they primarily take this approach out of ignorance. This is what they are taught, this is what they know. Nevertheless, we should be aware that our prognosis is worse if we succumb to fear.
All of this may sound pretty pessimistic. If stress and our personality are major contributing factors in the development of cancer, we may conclude that there is nothing we can do about it because we can’t control how much stress we experience or who we are. This can lead to a greater sense of frustration, hopelessness and fear – exactly where we don’t want to go.
In fact, this is really very positive. To a large degree we can control our level of stress and who we are, just as we can control our diet and lifestyle. For the most part, stress is not an inherent characteristic of experiences that we find stressful. A stress response is primarily something that we create. It is a product of the way we respond to situations, not the situations themselves. That is why experiences that have virtually no impact on one person can paralyze another with fear or anxiety. The situation itself doesn’t cause the stress, it triggers a stress response pattern in the individual – and response patterns can be changed.
Personality traits are similar. It is true that some aspects of our personality seem to be evident at birth, but most of them are learned. Many traits start out as adaptive mechanisms when we are very young. They are the best response of our young personality in difficult situations given our level of experience, wisdom, family and social support, etc. Over time, these responses can become hard-wired into our psyche so that certain situations automatically trigger certain responses. It is completely unconscious. Unfortunately, patterns that worked for us when we were three years old may become detrimental when we are trying to deal with the realities of our adult life.
The key to changing stress responses and personality traits is awareness. We need to bring our patterns of behaviour into full awareness in order to gradually regain conscious control of our responses. In time we can create new, more harmonious response patterns. Once we change our responses it’s easy, but changing patterns that we have mindlessly repeated for decades can be very difficult. Nevertheless, it can be done. The rewards of being able to live our lives in greater freedom rather than at the mercy of our fears can not be over-stated. This is a path that leads to greater physical and psychological health and well-being.
Although the only way that we can change is to do the work ourselves, we are not alone in trying to find our way through a maze of self-discovery. There is plenty of support available to help guide us on our path. It can be through various forms of counselling, biofeedback and visualization techniques, yoga, prayer or meditation. The key is to remember that there are many paths to climb this mountain. All we need to do is find the one that works for us at this time and not become too attached to it. It may only take us so far and then we will need to try another path. We must never forget that it is resistance to change that tends to get us into trouble in the first place. One of the most important elements of physical and psychological well-being is the ability to remain open and flexible.
Getting back to cancer, as I indicated above, it is much easier to prevent than to treat this condition. If we can act and feel and think in a healthy and harmonious way, we can expect to be healthier – but there are no absolute guarantees in life. The best attitude is one of optimism while being ready for whatever the Universe presents to us. Following these guidelines can significantly reduce the likelihood that we will suffer from cancer and many other serious illnesses. However, should cancer become a challenge that we must face, these guidelines are also important cornerstones in the treatment of this condition.
Cancer is a very serious, potentially life-threatening illness. Its treatment requires a much more focused effort than what I have discussed so far. There are many different kinds of treatments available, but it is very difficult to determine what the best approach is in any given case. No matter what anyone tells you, all treatments are essentially experimental. There are no guarantees. Ultimately, each individual has to make the decision for him or herself. It is important that we thoroughly educate ourselves about the potential benefits, limitations, side-effects and risks of the various options that are available or we are attracted to.
There are many good books on different cancer therapies. It is also important to consult with “experts.” Remember, however, that each “expert” can only give us information on their field of expertise. Many of them will comment on or even condemn other therapies. Don’t buy into it. Medical doctors are not qualified to comment on the benefits and limitations of herbal or homeopathic treatments. Similarly, herbalists, homeopaths and other natural therapists are not qualified to comment on the benefits of mainstream medical treatments. We need to be aware when someone is claiming expertise in an area outside their education and experience. Also, beware of hype. Anyone who claims to have all of the answers is suffering from delusions of grandeur. There is no one way for everyone and anyone who claims to have it is almost certainly unworthy of our trust.
THE POWER OF BELIEF
Once we have satisfied our mind by gathering the facts, we are in a position to narrow our options down to a few therapies that make the most sense to us. However, it is best to make our final decision with our heart. I recommend going with the treatment that feels best, as long as we are satisfied with the details. The reason for this is simple: in the treatment of serious illnesses like cancer, it is essential that we have total belief and faith in the treatment protocol that we choose, faith that it is the best treatment for us and that we can overcome the condition regardless of the prognosis.
Everyone has doubts. This is normal and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it. But our over-riding attitude must be based on as much belief and faith as we can find within ourselves. It is also important that we surround ourselves with practitioners and loved ones who support the choices that we have made, not those who attempt to undermine our faith.This is important for us to keep in mind when dealing with others who have cancer as well. We should never plant doubts in someone’s mind. If we think that we have important information that someone with cancer should consider, then we should simply provide them with the information and let them make their own decisions.
Belief is a very powerful thing. In mainstream medicine they discount it. They call it “the placebo effect.” Yet it produces the most consistent results in all medical research. In fact, it is likely that the greatest proportion of therapeutic benefits from most medical treatments, including those for cancer, is due to the placebo effect, not from the treatment itself. This is probably true of natural therapies as well, but in these cases I believe that the therapeutic benefits that are actually due to the treatment are often greater because natural therapies work more in harmony with our body and usually have significantly less side-effects and toxicity that have the potential to partly negate some of the benefits of the therapy.
Just as belief can give us a very important edge in dealing with serious illnesses such as cancer, it can also have the opposite effect. This is why most people who are told that they only have a few months to a few years to live die within that time period. Medical doctors believe that this validates their prognosis, but I believe that it is really validating the power of belief. If someone is told that they have three months to live and they have more faith in the doctor’s prognosis than in themselves, they will almost certainly die within three months. I’m not suggesting that medical professionals should underplay the seriousness of someone’s condition, only that they shouldn’t play prophet. The future is never certain.
Most of us are somewhat familiar with the cancer treatments promoted by mainstream medicine: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Surgery is the least invasive, although it may result in damage to some of the surrounding tissue. This can be a major problem in sensitive areas like the brain, but overall the effects of surgery tend to be highly localized.
Radiation is associated with greater side-effects and toxicity. Although an attempt is made to keep the effects of the radiation localized, it is impossible to eliminate all systemic effects.
Chemotherapy is by far the most dangerous form of treatment because the drugs are taken systemically and influence all tissues in the body. These drugs are toxic by nature and, although an attempt is made to create drugs that target processes specific to cancer cells (e.g. rapid growth rate), these characteristics are still shared by other cells in our body, even if to a lesser degree. It is impossible to prevent toxicity of other cells and
tissues. Unfortunately, even when surgery and radiation are useful forms of treatment, chemotherapy is often recommended afterwards as a backup “in case they missed anything.”
The main problem with mainstream medical treatments for cancer is that they don’t address the underlying causes of the condition and they usually leave the person in a much weaker state after the treatment. This is one of the main reasons why the medical profession must quote statistics in terms of five year survival rates. Even if they are able to eliminate the cancer, the limitations of this form of treatment increase the likelihood that it will recur.
Having said that, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy have resulted in many success stories, and if someone truly believes in this kind of therapy, its efficacy will be greatly increased. For those who choose this approach, I personally recommend that they consider some kind of natural treatment protocol as well. A good herbalist or other complementary health practitioner will help a cancer patient to understand the underlying causes of their illness and make the appropriate changes in their lives. Herbal and other natural therapies can also increase the effectiveness of medical treatments and significantly reduce their side effects and toxicity.
It is sad that there is no formal collaboration between medical doctors and other practitioners because I am convinced that it is possible to combine herbal therapy in particular (since this is my area of expertise) with
chemotherapy in a way that will increase the effectiveness of the therapy while allowing lower doses of the drugs to be used.
THE HERBAL APPROACH IS MULTI-FACETED
In Western herbalism we tend to use a multi-faceted approach to treating cancer. As always, the goal is to support the whole person, not just treat the symptoms of the illness. We look at the various dietary, lifestyle and psychosocial factors that decrease the person’s overall level of health and well-being and predispose them to conditions like cancer. The goal is to help the patient create a healthier lifestyle that works for them. We may also recommend appropriate supplements.
There are three major elements to the herbal treatment. The primary focus is on deep acting tonic herbs that support the various channels through which waste products and toxins are eliminated from the body, boost the immune system, and improve digestion and assimilation to ensure that cells have access to the nutrients that they need. This approach improves the overall functioning of the body, reduces the level of cancer-causing toxins, and helps to create an internal environment that is less conducive to the growth of cancer cells.
All herbs are antioxidant to some degree and many herbs contain large quantities of a few to literally dozens of very powerful antioxidants. We now know that these constituents play an important role in the mechanisms of
action of herbs. This also means that the majority of herbs have the ability to neutralize the toxicity of many cancer-causing agents and protect our cells and tissues from their effects. In many cases these herbs will have a direct effect on the cancer cells themselves to some degree.
Of all of the categories of herbs used in the treatment of cancer, by far the most important are the depuratives. This term literally means “blood purifier,” referring to the ability of these herbs to help cleanse body tissues and fluids of harmful waste products and toxins. It is not surprising that many of the more common depurative herbs also have direct antineoplastic (anticancer) effects, but with the more tonic depuratives the antineoplastic action tends to be mild. Some of the more important herbs in this category include burdock root (Arctium spp.), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), purple coneflower root (Echinacea spp.), cleavers herb (Galium aparine), red clover tops (Trifolium pretense), sweet clover herb (Melilotus officinalis), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus), Chinese rhubarb root (Rheum spp.), blue violet herb (Viola spp.) and soapwort herb (Saponaria officinalis).
All of the treatment protocols that I have mentioned so far, both lifestyle and herbal, are general protocols. The second level of herbal treatment is more specific. It is the herbal version of chemotherapy. It involves the use
of “potentizing” antineoplastics: stronger anticancer herbs that more directly target cancer cells and significantly increase the potency of our anticancer formulation. As you might expect, some of these herbs are very strong and this means that they are associated with a greater risk of toxicity, especially if misused.
A good anticancer formulation will usually include three or four general depuratives such as those mentioned above, and one potentizing antineoplastic at a proportion of 10-25% of the formulation depending on the
potency of the herb and specifics of the case. The general depuratives not only have a tonic effect on the whole body and a generalized anticancer effect, they also increase the effectiveness of the potentizing antineoplastic and reduce its potential side-effects and toxicity, both directly and by allowing a lower amount of the stronger herb to be used.
In the early stages of treatment, we usually begin with a medium potency potentizing neoplastic and eventually switch to a more high potency herb. Some of the medium potency herbs that I have used for this purpose include goldenseal rhizome (Hydrastis canadensis), celandine herb (Chelidonium majus), yellow wild indigo root (Baptisia tinctoria), chaparral leaves/young twigs (Larrea tridentata) and European mistletoe leaves/young twigs (Viscum album). High potency antineoplastics include northern white cedar leaves/young twigs (Thuja occidentalis), poke root (Phytolacca americana – photo above), bloodroot rhizome (Sanguinaria canadensis) and mayapple rhizome (Podophyllum peltatum).
The high potency antineoplastics are very strong herbs that can be extremely dangerous if misused. They are not suitable for use by the inexperienced. Anyone who is considering using these or any other herbs in this category should consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health care professional who has experience with the use of these herbs.
In herbalism, we tend to use the mildest, most tonic herbs most of the time. We only use the very potent herbs in very serious situations. In the medical community there is a tendency to gravitate to the stronger and therefore more toxic substances to use as drugs. In the search for new drugs, pharmaceutical companies often search the plant world for new chemicals. This is because plants are much better chemists than humans will ever be. In the development of new chemotherapy drugs for cancer, it is not surprising that drug companies have primarily focused on some of the more toxic herbs. Many chemotherapy drugs are constituents derived from antineoplastic herbs, or semi synthetic derivatives of these constituents. Examples include paclitaxel from a number of species of yew tree (Taxus spp.); etoposide, teniposide and etopophose from mayapple; sanguinarine from bloodroot and celandine; lapachone from taheebo (Tabebuia spp.); vinblastine from periwinkle (Vinca spp.); colchicine from meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale); and numerous others. Although many of the herbs from which these drugs were derived are used by herbalists in treatment of cancer, the whole herbs are considerably less toxic than isolated constituents and their derivatives, especially when used in combination with more tonic general depuratives.
The third group of herbs that is important in the treatment of cancer is the adaptogenic immune tonics. These herbs have a general tonic effect on the whole body, a very deep restorative action on the immune system, as well as some direct anticancer properties. These herbs work best in the final stages of treatment after the depuratives and antineoplastics. From an herbal perspective, they are the icing on the cake. Some important herbs in this group include lacquered polypore fruiting body (Ganoderma lucidum), hemlock varnish shelf fruiting body (Ganoderma tsugae), artist’s conk fruiting body (Ganoderma applanatum), Siberian ginseng rhizome bark (Eleutherococcus senticosus), American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius) and Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus). Aside from their direct benefits in the treatment of cancer, these are the most important herbs to helprestore immune function after chemotherapy. This is particularly true of the
THE DEEPER MEANING OF CANCER
There is one final issue that must be mentioned otherwise this discussion of cancer would be incomplete. All of the cases of cancer (at least in adults) that I am aware of in which the person has completely healed have had one major characteristic in common: all of the people involved have had a profound life-changing experience. Their journey with cancer has precipitated a major shift in consciousness of some kind. Maybe it was a deep realization that their life was out of balance. In many cases it was something far more individual and specific.
I believe that everything that manifests in our lives has a reason. There is always a lesson involved. Often the deepest and most profound lessons require a major shake-up to get us out of our ruts. Unfortunately, it is
human nature that we often get complacent when things are going good. This sometimes necessitates a passage through adversity in order to help us wake up. I have witnessed this over and over again. When life presents us with a challenge in which we must face the inevitability of our own mortality, it is time for deep reflection about the meaning of life and death and what it is that really matters and makes life so precious. I cannot guarantee that anyone with cancer who has a profound consciousness raising experience will overcome their cancer. Sometimes the lesson is in letting go and accepting our mortality.
Cancer is a very complex and multifaceted topic. Many volumes have been written on it from many points of view and many more will be written in the future. In this article I have tried to cover some of the most important elements of this topic that is of such great importance in modern Western society. There are very few of us whose lives haven’t been touched by cancer in some way. What is most important for us to remember is that cancer is an incredible journey of learning, healing and self-discovery — a journey with very high stakes. We can take this journey in fear and hopelessness, or we can embrace it as an opportunity to grow and to learn to appreciate every moment that we have in this amazing life for what it is: the most precious gift imaginable.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/