Chinese medicine is not “the cure” for cancer, but it is a powerful ally of modern medicine, able to reduce drug side effects, and extend both the efficacy and reach of modern oncology.
In practice though, it has been frustrating, as I have not found many doctors who would listen to me, or consider my point of view. Patients refuse herbal medicine because their oncologist warned them to avoid it.
Why do many oncologists discourage their patients from seeking herbal medicine as an adjunct therapy? Because they know nothing about it; and because they fear introducing unknown and unpredictable elements into the treatment plan and the liability that would come with it. It is understandable but disheartening when cancer patients come to me for acupuncture to relieve their pain or stress, but refuse herbal medicine, which may be of even greater benefit to them.
My hope is that more cancer specialists would step outside their box if they knew a little more about TCM cancer practice or just how much it may be able to do for their patients. May this article further their education.
Herbal Medicine And Cancer
Chinese herbs can not cure cancer, because there is no word for cancer in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM doctors have historically recognized ‘cancer’ as several distinct diseases rather than a single disease. Ironic that modern medical research is beginning to take a similar view.
There is no doubt that cancer, by any name, is well known and well documented throughout Chinese medical literature, as TCM doctors have been dealing with it for millennia. Drawings of tumors are found on turtle shells and “oracle bones” dating from the eleventh century B.C. Medical texts dating from 200 B.C. offer detailed descriptions of tumors and their causes.
These ‘causes’ may sound a bit quaint to our 21st century ears, but within TCM theory, these ancient terms not only describe the condition, they also imply the treatment and potential cure.
The diagnosis of “Accumulation of Toxic Heat and Phlegm, for example, instructs herbalists to use substances that ‘Dissipate Accumulations, Detoxify Fire Poisons, and Transform Phlegm. That is an ancient treatment plan for cancer.
TCM is about remedying what is out of balance, so that ‘accumulations’ are broken up, ‘dryness’ is moistened, ‘cold is warmed, and ‘heat’ is cooled, so that balance and harmony can be achieved or approximated.
Of course, TCM practitioners today have a more complete and complex view of cancer. This is due to both training and experience. Our training includes both ancient and modern knowledge, and since almost all our cancer patients are also undergoing Western treatments, we are further educated by our practice.1
For the most part, my past practice has involved treating the side effects of harsh chemical drugs and surgical procedures. I do things like combating nausea and fatigue from chemo, prescribing soothing unguents from radiation burns, and relieving the pain and depletions caused by surgery.
These treatments are not the same for everyone, because TCM prescriptions are based on pattern recognition and constitutional factors rather than on symptoms alone. For safe and reliable results, by all means see a practitioner. I offer the following examples to stir your interest. If you are interested in these herbs, search on the PIN YIN names I have provided rather than on botanical or English names. You will get much more relevant information.
Note that that this article is not meant to encourage self-help. Its purpose is to encourage curiosity and further the use of complementary Chinese medicine in treating cancer. If you are inexperienced in using these herbs, do not even think about trying to diagnose yourself or self-prescribing.
Some of the substances mentioned in this article are powerful and can have unpleasant side effects if not properly used. Even if you are a professional Western herbalist, I caution about treating yourself. Remember the adage, “The physician who treats him (or herself) has a fool for a doctor. If any condition requires the help of a professional TCM herbalist, it is certainly cancer
Herbs To Treat Side Effects Of Chemotherapy & Radiation
|Nausea||SHENG JIANG (Ginger), HUO XIANG (Patchouli), CHEN PI (Citrus Peel)||Stomach Curing Pills, HUO XIANG CHUN QI WAN, PO CHAI pills|
|Fatigue||REN SHEN (Ginseng), XI YANG SHEN (American Ginseng)||Golden Book Pills, SHIH CHUAN DA BU WAN, Eight Treasures Pills|
|Dryness and thirst||SHU DI HUANG (Foxglove root), LU GEN (phragmitis), XI YANG SHEN (American Ginseng)||MAI WEI DI HUANG WAN, DA BU YIN WAN|
|Radiation burns||LU HUI (aloe), FENG MI (Honey)||JING WAN HONG Ointment, Spring Wind Burn Cream|
|Flu-like symptoms (fever, sore throat)||ZHI MU (anemarrhena root), ZHI ZI (gardenia seed), JIN YIN HUA (honeysuckle flower), BAN LAN GEN (isatis root)||ZHI BAI DI HUANG WAN, YIN CHIAO CHIEH TU PIAN|
These herbs are used for ameliorating side effects, and as helpful as they are in this respect, they do not represent all that TCM can do for cancer patients. Over and above this symptom relief, there are other, far more profound contributions that TCM can make.2 These are the gifts I call, The Gifts Of Heaven And Earth. First among these is the gift of heaven, idea of QI, or vital energy.
Gift of Heaven, It Is The Qi
Since modern science has understood for almost a century that there is actual energy in our bodies, it should be a no brainer that QI (body energy), postulated by Chinese doctors over 2,500 years ago, exists, and it should also be a no brainer that this energy can be a factor in our health.
Unfortunately, medical researchers appear to be brainless in regard to this matter and give little thought to ‘energy’ as a factor in our well being. Despite their obsession with testing and measuring everything, researchers appear to have no interest in studying or measuring energy in the body. They do not study it, speculate about it, or try to account for it as a disease factor. Is this because treatments involving the QI (rather than drugs) is likely to profit only the patient?
TCM, on the other hand, is all about energy. We notice that energy animates us, fires our muscles, moves our blood, and warms our innards. After studying the behavior of QI for several millennia, TCM doctors have devised methods of evaluating it, and thus can predict the effects of Qi on mind and body.
Though it is obviously invisible, energy is clearly present in, and surrounding our living body. If we could actually see our body’s energy, we would probably look like spheres of radiant light and heat containing rivers and flows and twinkles of light. The gaze of the TCM doctor includes this vision. Practitioners of Eastern medicine have developed methods of building, moving, and redirecting Qi. We are sure that strong QI helps us to resist disease, recover from illness, and to thrive. It is unlikely a Western trained doctor can grasp this idea. The concept is missing.
Herbs – Gift Of Nature
Besides the concept of Qi, TCM also offers our huge pharmacy of 10,000 natural substances, which can far extend the reach of Western drugs. Moreover our natural drugs can do things like Build QI, Clean Toxins, Vitalize Blood, Stabilize Defense, and more. You just can not do these things with pharmaceutical drugs.
Today, TCM cancer treatment is called FU ZHENG GU BEN. “FU ZHENG” means strengthening what is correct. “GU BEN” means regeneration and repair. This approach may use herbs that are specific to cancer treatment as well as herbs that are used commonly for other purposes.
In choosing which herbs to use in a cancer formula, today’s practitioner has access to current scientific research as well as to our long historical experience and hindsight. This dual perspective enables us to select herbs that can perform necessary TCM functions, and at the same time, have potential anti-cancer benefits as suggested by modern research. Following are examples of this.
FU ZHENG, Herbs To Support That Which Is Correct
Sometimes called Supporting the Righteous, this concept can take several forms:
Defending And Protecting
Thousands of years ago, physicians in China conceived the idea of the immune system. They called it the WEI QI (protective energy) and considered it a function of the Lung (respiratory system). You will find many herbal substances that are designated as lung strengtheners. These safe and beneficial substances can be taken by anyone, sick or well, to support the body in combating the disease process.3 Used by cancer patients, they may have the potential of reducing reliance on the powerful and often toxic chemicals used against cancer. Of particular importance in cancer treatments are HUANG QI (Astragalus root), NU ZHEN ZI (Privet fruit), JIAO GU LAN (gynostemma), and LING ZHI (Reishi Mushroom).4
Balancing And Harmonizing
A good formula will contain herbs that re-balance perceived imbalances, regardless of whether or not these imbalances are considered cancer causes. Symptoms of ‘heat’ or inflammation may be balanced with ‘cold’ substances like BAI HUA SHE SHE CAO (Oldenlandia plant) or BAN ZHI LIAN (scutellaria barbosa).5 These herbs are said to have a cold nature, making them suitable to Clear Heat. Studies have also found these particular herbs to have tumor inhibiting or other anti-cancer properties. This makes them herbs of choice when treating heat or inflammation in cancer patients.6
Very often, special herbs are included in formulas to strengthen digestion so as to make herbs more digestible and increase absorption of the medicine. Herbs that do this are generally considered ‘Spleen Tonics’’. But do not be misled by the word ‘spleen’, because they do not have much to do with the organ we know as the spleen. To better understand the TCM ‘Spleen’, think of it as the brain of your digestive system, regulating the flow, release, and timing of enzymes, acids, and other digestive substances and processes. These actions are normally associated with your pancreas in Western medicine. There are innumerable herbs classified as spleen tonics, but by far the most commonly used is GAN CAO (licorice root). When added to a tonic (strengthening) formula, it is thought to increase the effectiveness of the tonic herbs by enhancing digestion and absorption. Though you will find licorice root in many anti-cancer formulas, you will also find YI YI REN (Coix, Job’s Tears), as Coix is also thought to slow down the spread of the disease.7
A typical anti-cancer formula might also contain herbs that are used for other purposes. For example
Anti Oxidant Herbs & Cancer
Using anti-oxidants for cancer is controversial. Some herbal oncologists favor the use of antioxidant substances in their formulas. Anti-oxidants slow down the rate of cell oxidation and prevent cells from oxidizing (burning up). Slowing down this process is generally seen as protective of health. Others practitioners disagree with this logic in cancer patients and discourage using antioxidant herbs. They theorize that anti-oxidants may also protect cancer cells from harm. I personally have no opinion about this, as there is little good study of the matter and zero information in the annals of TCM. For those who wish to use Chinese herbs with antioxidant properties, here are two good choices.
QING HAO artemisia apiece, (wormwood), is well known for its antimalarial properties, and it has lately been studied as a possible anti-caner agent or source of anti-cancer drugs.8 It also has major antioxidant properties. Though wormwood is known by all herbalists, clearly the most famous Chinese herbal antioxidant is GOU QI ZI lycii fructus (goji berry), having found its way into the mainstream of pop anti-oxidizing agents. It’s a good choice for an additive, as it actually tastes good. This can not be said for wormwood. These days you will find products containing goji berries in virtually every natural food store.
Anti-Tumor Herbs/ Vitalizing Blood Herbs
Both traditional and modern prescriptions for cancer make use of herbs that ‘Move The Blood’. We believe that moving the blood breaks accumulations, such as tumors, cysts, and other masses. Of the hundreds of herbs used to move the blood, the stronger ones are called Blood Breakers, of these; several are believed to have anti-cancer properties. Most notable among these are E ZHU curcuma rhizoma (zedoary rhizome)9 SAN LENG spargani rhizoma (burreed tuber), YU JIN curcuma radix (turmeric root), and LONG KUI solanum nigri (black nightshade).
Herbs That Soften The Hard
Other kinds of herbs used against solid tumors are herbs that ‘Soften the Hard’. Many of these herbs are animal or mineral substances. Common among them are MU LI concha ostrea (oyster shell), LONG GU os draconis (fossil bone), and GUI BAN testudinis plastrum (turtle shell).
Directional Messenger Herbs
Chinese herbalists have long relied on certain herbs to direct a formula to a specific organ or location. These are called messenger herbs. Some of these are used generally, say up or down. For example, HUANG QI astragalus radix (milk vetch root) directs the action of a formula upward. This could be used added when supporting the treatment of cancer in the lung or brain. A small amount of HUAI NIU XI achyranthes radix (achyranthis root) is used to send the action of a formula downward, potentially useful in formulas addressing the bladder, prostate, or testicles.
Messengers For Specific Organs
All herbs in the TCM pharmacopeia are designated to effect specific organs. Most of them effect multiple organs. A few, based on scientific research, are thought to have anti-cancer properties, making them the messengers of choice in cancer formulas aimed at these organs.10
The Following Tables Are Examples
|Breast cancer||oldenlandia, taraxacum, scutellaria, aurantium, curcuma|
|Stomach cancer||oldenlandia, imperata , scutellaria , imperata|
|Esophageal cancer||oldenlandia, scutellaria, imperata, cotton root|
|Colon cancer||oldenlandia, scutellaria, solanum sanguisorba, viola|
|Ovarian cancer||oldenlandia, scutellaria, solanum, turtle shell|
|Lung cancer||scutellaria, taraxacum, ophiopogonis, oldenlandia|
|Liver cancer||oldenlandia, scutellaria, phragmites, peonae alba|
|Vitalize Blood Herbs||Anti-Cancer Herbs||Strengthening Herbs||Miscellanious Herbs|
|JI XUE TENG, Militia branches||LING ZHI, REI SHI mushrooms||HUANG QI, Astragalus root||Yi Yi Ren, Coix|
|E ZHU, Curcuma zedoaria||LU FENG FANG, Hornet nest||XI YANG SHEN, American Ginseng root||LuGen, Phragmites|
|TAO REN, Peach seed kernel||LONG KUI, Black nightshade||SHU DI HUANG, Chinese Foxglove root||Bai Mao Gen, Imperata|
|HONG HUA, Safflowers||BAN ZHI LIAN, Scutellaria barbata plant||JIAO GU LAN, Gynostemna Pentaphyllum plant||Mu Li – Oyster Shell, and other shells|
|SAN LENG, Sparganii rhizome||DONG LING CAO, Rabdosia Rubescentis plant||REN SHEN, Panax Ginseng root||Pu Gong YIN, Taraxacum|
|WU LING ZHI, Flying Squirrel Feces||BAI HUA SHE SHE CAO, Oldenlandia plant||GUI BAN , Turtle shell||Ji Xue Teng, Millettia|
|↑1||Dharmananda, Subhuti. “Oriental perspectives on cancer and its treatment.” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ORIENTAL MEDICINE 22 (1997): 119-128.|
|↑2||Biswal, Biswa Mohan, Ahmad Zakaria, and Nik Min Ahmad. “Topical application of honey in the management of radiation mucositis. A preliminary study.” Supportive Care in Cancer 11, no. 4 (2003): 242-248.|
|↑3||Gao, Yihuai, Shufeng Zhou, Wenqi Jiang, Min Huang, and Xihu Dai. “Effects of Ganopoly®(A ganoderma lucidum polysaccharide extract) on the immune functions in Advanced‐Stage cancer patients.” Immunological investigations 32, no. 3 (2003): 201-215.|
|↑4||Chen, Hung-Sen, Yow-Fu Tsai, Steven Lin, Chia-Ching Lin, Kay-Hooi Khoo, Chun-Hung Lin, and Chi-Huey Wong. “Studies on the immuno-modulating and anti-tumor activities of Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi) polysaccharides.” Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry 12, no. 21 (2004): 5595-5601.|
|↑5||Wong, Brian YY, Benjamin HS Lau, Tai Yuan Jia, and Chok P. Wan. “Oldenlandia diffusa and Scutellaria barbata augment macrophage oxidative burst and inhibit tumor growth.” Cancer biotherapy & radiopharmaceuticals 11, no. 1 (1996): 51-56.|
|↑6||Chan, Judy Yuet-Wa, Patrick Ming-Kuen Tang, Po-Ming Hon, Shannon Wing-Ngor Au, Stephen Kwok-Wing Tsui, Mary Mui-Yee Waye, Siu-Kai Kong, Thomas Chung-Wai Mak, and Kwok-Pui Fung. “Pheophorbide a, a major antitumor component purified from Scutellaria barbata, induces apoptosis in human hepatocellular carcinoma cells.” Planta medica 72, no. 01 (2006): 28-33.|
|↑7||Woo, Ju-Hyung, Li Dapeng, Li Dapeng, Hajime Orita, Jonathan Coulter, Ellen Tully, Taeg Kyu Kwon, Shi Xu, and Edward Gabrielson. “Coix seed extract, a commonly used treatment for cancer in China, inhibits NFκB and protein kinase C signaling.” Cancer biology & therapy 6, no. 12 (2007): 2005-2011.|
|↑8||Ferreira, Jorge FS, Devanand L. Luthria, Tomikazu Sasaki, and Arne Heyerick. “Flavonoids from Artemisia annua L. as antioxidants and their potential synergism with artemisinin against malaria and cancer.” Molecules 15, no. 5 (2010): 3135-3170.|
|↑9||Zhao, R., C. Chen, and Y. Wu. “Isolation and structure determination of furan sesquiterpene from Chinese traditional herb ezhu (rhizome of Curcuma zedoaria Rosc.).” Zhongguo Zhong yao za zhi= Zhongguo zhongyao zazhi= China journal of Chinese materia medica 16, no. 5 (1991): 291.|
|↑10||Hu, Bing, Hong-Mei An, Shuang-Shuang Wang, Jin-Jun Chen, and Ling Xu. “Preventive and therapeutic effects of Chinese herbal compounds against hepatocellular carcinoma.” Molecules 21, no. 2 (2016): 142.|