Cancer Doubts .com
  Information for patients researching their options

Learn about cancer and
Talk to your doctor with confidence

  Cancer information  

01 What is cancer?
02 Cancer symptoms and screening (how cancer is detected)
03 Causes of cancer
04 Can cancer be prevented?
05 Cancer Stages
(how long do patients live?)
06 Cancer treatment and therapy (how cancer is treated)
07 Types of doctors who treat cancer
08 Choosing a doctor (or getting a second opinion)
09 Preparing for Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy
10 Cancer support (patient psychology and feelings)
11 Cancer suport - How friends can help
12 Is it important to do my own research? (or do I just follow doctor's orders)
13 Cancer information (research your treatment options)
14 Alternative and complementary treatments for cancer
15 Avoiding dubious treatments
16 How medical research is done (how to read medical research papers)
A About this site

Alternative and Complementary Medicine for Cancer Patients

Many people undergoing conventional cancer treatment look to herbal or "natural" medicine either to help manage the side effects of chemotherapy, or to help "cure" the cancer. Many such herbal, natural or traditional treatments are outside mainstream medicine, and you should use them with caution. There is a common misconception that anything that is "natural or herbal" can't be bad for you. This is not true. Every medicine or food, whether natural or man-made, has bio-active compounds (compounds which interact with cells and molecules in our body). In regular healthy people, the bio-active compounds in food do not usually cause problems because the body is able to process them.

But for patients undergoing cancer treatment, two things make them different from normal healthy people:

(1) they may be taking chemotherapy medicine, which can interact with the bio-active compounds in the herbal medicines and potentially cause harm

(2) their bodies are weakened by the cancer / chemotherapy, which may make their bodies unable to handle potentially harmful interactions that a healthy body would handle without any problem. For example, some herbal medicines which can help treat symptoms like sore-throat or mouth ulcers are also immune suppressants - they weaken the immune system. In a healthy body this usually isn't a problem because the weakened immune system is still enough to fight off infections. But in cancer patients, the immune system may already be much weaker, and such herbs may make the patient vulnerable to fatal bacterial infections.

But this doesn't mean that herbal and complementary medicines have no place in cancer treatment. Some complementary treatments like aromatherapy or body massage may help patients ease any pain they have, while not causing any harm. Some foods or herbs may also have bio-active compounds that help the body's immune system fight off certain cancers. Some medical research organizations, such as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Integrative Medicine Service (link at the right bar) are actively looking into herbs and complementary treatments which can help cancer patients.

The key is to use complementary or alternative treatments that will not cause you more harm, or reduce the effectiveness of your main line of cancer treatment. The best thing you can do is to consult your doctor and seek his or her advice on the complementary treatments or medicines that you are considering.


Things to Consider
However, if you decide not to consult your doctor (which I highly advise against, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this happens very often), then I strongly suggest that you thoroughly understand the nature of the herbs / foods before starting to take them. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Integrative Medicine Service has an excellent website (link at right) that lists the known medical/scientific properties of many herbs and alternative medicines. It's important to understand the side effects of each herb, and what can make a herb fatal (e.g. what the fatal dosages are, do they cause problems like liver stress, which make them dangerous for patients with liver disease, and so on).

If you want to try herbal remedies or alternative medicines, I suggest following these guidelines (again, I am not a doctor. This is just my common-sense reasoning):

(1) Do not use herbs/alternative medicines in place of mainstream chemotherapy / radiotherapy. No one knows for sure how effective these medicines are, and you are jeopardizing yourself if you do not take mainstream medication. Mainstream medications have been very well studies, and their effectiveness and slowing down or stopping cancer growth is well understood. Alternative and herbal medicines have not been well studies, so we don't know for sure if they work. Herbs and foods whose cancer-fighting properties are well understood will become mainstream treatments over time. A good example is the drug called PSK (from Kureha Pharmaceuticals) in Japan which is used to treat colon cancer. It is derived from extracts of the Coriolus Versicolor mushroom, which was used as a traditional medicine in Japan and China.

(2) Only try herbs/foods that people have consumed as a normal food. (e.g. many mushrooms with purported "anti-cancer" properties are also used as regular food by people in other parts of the world) Because people have been eating it safely as a food over many years, chances are that any side effects it may have, won't be fatal. This also means that you shouldn't take excessively high doses which are beyond what a normal person would reasonably eat in one day.

(3) Where possible, prepare the herbs / food yourself instead of buying prepared extracts or ready made pills. One of the big problems with herbal supplements and is that they are not well regulated, in spite of the impression that many people have that such supplements are FDA approved and that it means they are safe. Studies of supplements have found that many capsules and tablets do not contain what they are supposed to. Many have too low or too high dosages, and some which claim to have extracts of a herb end up having powdered herb or some other filler.

Because alternative medicines and herbs have not been researched and clinically tested, there are many pharmacological unknowns which can make it difficult to decide how to safely and effectively consume them:

(a) Dosage. Unlike mainstream medications which have been tested in clinical trials, one of the big problems with alternative and herbal medicines is that no one knows what the right dosages are. This is a problem because as with most medicines, taking too much of it can kill you. (For example, the familiar over-the-counter medicine paracetamol, which is commonly used to treat fevers, can cause permanent liver damage and death if the stated dosages are exceeded)

(b) Bio-active components. A traditional remedy may say that a certain plant is good for treating a certain condition. But do we know where the bio-active compounds (that provide the remedy) are? They could be in the leaves, or in the stem, or perhaps even in the roots. Consuming the wrong part may do you no good. Simply consuming the whole plant may not be wise either. It is possible that one part of the plant may be poisonous. This is one of the reasons why I suggest not using herbal medicines that have been made into pill form. An unscrupulous or ill-informed manufacturer may be making the pills/capsules with the wrong part of the herb.

(c) Bio-availability. You may have read research reports that say that a certain herb has been effective in treating a disease. But it is also important to know how the bio-active compounds from the herb were delivered into the body. Different compounds have different bio-availability characteristics, meaning that some compounds are only effective if injected into the bloodstream, while others can be effective if taken orally. Orally taken compounds may have further characteristics, for example, some may be best absorbed on an empty stomach, while others are best absorbed after a meal.


Real life example - why herbals are not as straightforward as they seem
Here is an example that shows why an understanding of the pharmacological characteristics of a herb/alternative medicine is important: It was observed and theorized that people who had a diet rich in Maitake mushrooms had healthier immune systems. At first glance, we might think that the best thing to do then is to eat as much Maitake mushrooms as possible. Unfortunately, this wouldn't do much good. Subsequent research (still preliminary) revealed that the bio-active compounds in Maitake mushrooms were not well absorbed into the body if the whole mushroom was eaten, because the compounds were inside the mushroom body, which the stomach had difficulty breaking down. The best way to let the body absorb the compounds was to boil the mushrooms and let the compounds be extracted into into the water. In other words, making and drinking Maitake mushroom soup was the best way to get the compounds to work on the body.

Other scientists also decided to investigate the common Shiitake mushroom, to see if it had immune stimulating effects. They discovered that an extract (Lentinan) from the mushroom did have immune system stimulating properties in mice. But it wasn't effective if consumed orally, it only worked when injected into the bloodstream at certain dosages. In this case, simply drinking Shiitake soup or eating Shiitake mushrooms wouldn't have the desired effect. (assuming of course, what they observed in mice works out for humans too). It is also theorized that having too much or too little of these mushroom compounds (to be specific, the various beta-glucan molecules from these mushrooms) in the body over a certain period of time can induce immune tolerance. This means that the immune system would stop reacting to them, and they wouldn't be able to stimulate the immune system anymore.

As you can see, working out the dosage, administration (oral or injected) and preparation of herbs and alternative medicines isn't as straightforward as it sounds.


Maitake Mushroom

Image: A Maitake mushroom growing in the wild. You should be able to find this at health food stores or at supermarkets. Picking mushrooms in the wild is dangerous, as many mushrooms are poisonous. Source: Wikimedia Commons, used under the GNU free documentation license.

Complementary Therapies that look promising
Nonetheless, there are herbs and foods that do show promise in being able to help treat cancer, or reducing the side effects of chemotherapy. I went through the Memorial Sloan Kettering Integrative Medicine Service's encyclopedia of herbs, and these look like the more promising candidates:

  • Maitake mushroom, certain extracts
  • Agaricus Blazei Murrill mushroom, certain extracts
  • Astragalus (Huangqi) extract
  • Ashgawandha

The main thing that these few herbs / foods do is to stimulate the immune system into producing more T-cells and NK cells. This can be useful during chemotherapy, because chemotherapy tends to kill off many of these cells. Increasing their numbers and putting them into a heightened state of alert may also help them detect and attack cancerous cells. I figure that trying them gives a potential reward with little risk, since people have been eating the mushrooms and their soup for years with few problems. Astragalus is a known Traditional Chinese medicine herb, and has been used for hundreds of years in soups as a tonic. The question with all these then, is the dosage to consume. My suggestion is to consume it in reasonable food like quantities (a bowl of soup). As for Astragalus, I'd check up typical Chinese medicine prescriptions to see what is commonly used.

But before taking any of these, I strongly suggest having a look at pages for these items in the Sloan Kettering herbs database. It documents known side effects which may affect you depending on your medical condition.



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Medical information for cancer I am not a medical professional; please consult your doctor for a medical opinion. This is my attempt to explain cancer to anyone who is affected by it. If this site helps just one person, then it will have served its purpose.


 Cancer Links
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M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
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Mayo Clinic
Information on Drugs
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NCI Drug Info
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Sloan Kettering
(Integrative Medicine Service)
Medline Plus
American Cancer Society
PDR (Herbals and Supplements)
Complementary Medicine and Supplement Suppliers
Cuesta Agaricus Mushrooms
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Mitobi Mushrooms
Freshes Mushrooms [Bulk]
AllStarHealth [Maitake D-Fraction]
Maitake Products [D-Fraction]
LifeStream [BRM 360 capsules]
Himalaya Herbals [Ashwagandha]
Vita Green [Yun Zhi extract]
Clinical Trials
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Helpful Books and Sites
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy survival guide
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Andrew Grove
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Site Copyright © 2008 Wei-lung Wang. Top banner images from the Wikimedia Commons, and used under the terms of the GNU General Public License.