Using Herbs to treat Cancer: Traditional Medicine in a Modern World

The simple fact that plants are a major source of many drugs is not a surprise to most. Penicillin comes from mold, coumadin from sweet clover and aspirin from the bark of the white willow. Many of the most effective cancer drugs are also plant derived such as Vincristine (from periwinkle), Etoposide (from mayapple) and Taxol (from the pacific yew tree). In China and Japan, the mainstream medical opinion is that supplementing chemotherapy with traditional herbal formulas can improve survival rates and life expectancy of cancer patients. Skeptics might doubt any herbal effect but for cancer patients, it raises a very simple question, “What does the research say?”

Coriolis versicolor, the common turkey tail mushroom, has over 400 published studies including several long term human clinical trials confirming its cancer killing, anti-metastatic, and immune enhancing effects. (1-9) It is referred to as a Biological Response Modifier as it improves the patients own anti-tumor response (10). Researchers at the St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco reviewed several randomized clinical trials and agreed with the Japanese Ministry of Health that this common mushroom significantly improves survival rates and lifespan for gastric, esophageal, colorectal, breast and lung cancers (9).

Coptis chinensis (Huang Lian) is a favorite herb of traditional Chinese medicine for signs of infection associated with heat or inflammation. Researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) have demonstrated effects on hepatoma, gastric, colon, and breast cancer cells in the lab. Researchers also discovered that the whole herb is more effective than the single major constituent, berberine (11). A phase one clinical trial is currently underway on the effects of Huang Lian on solid tumors at MSKCC.

Artemisinin annua (Qing Hao), commonly known as sweet wormwood, has recently gained fame as the best treatment for quinine resistant malaria. A University of Washington study shows Artemisinin selectively kills several cancer cell lines in the test tube. It worked against breast cancer cells but was most effective for aggressive forms of pancreatic and leukemia cell lines (14,15). Artemisinin damages cell membranes by reacting with iron, high concentrations of which are found in both the malaria parasite and quickly dividing cancer cells. Researchers observed cancer cells resistant to chemotherapy were still killed by aremisinin (16).

Oldenlandia (Bai Hua She She Cao) is used traditionally for snakebite or any conditions of heat due to toxin. The Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy published an article in 2004 that showed oral doses of Bai Hua She She Cao inhibited lung cancer growth and metastasis in rats and eight other cancer cell lines in the test tube (12).

In the near future, America’s healthcare will be very similar to what is found in China and Japan: an integrative system that takes the best of all worlds for the benefit of the patient. Clearly, herbs can be potent medicines and in the case of the turkey tail mushroom a clinically proven complementary option for stomach, colon, lung and throat cancer.

When searching for an Acupuncturist, look for one that prescribe Chinese herbs. I intern in a clinic where Dr. Fudi prescribe patients with Chinese herbal decoction. These decoctions are often mixtures of single herbs to treat a number of symptoms. There are over 10,000 medicinal herbs in Chinese medicine. Homeopathic medicines and Ayurveda are also alternative options. However Chinese Herbs are the best.