Cancer Treatment – Natural or Standard?


The Western or allopathic treatment of cancer is based upon three major methods, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, although many new and innovative methods are being developed.

Surgical removal of tumors has been recorded since the 7th century BC, and remains very valuable to this day, because it is difficult to shrink tumors.

Surgical removal is sometimes called “debulking” a descriptive name that readily explains its value. Once a large bulk of cancerous tissue is removed, the job of removing the rest of the cancer cells is much easier, with one caveat. Cutting of tumors releases millions of cells into circulation, increasing the chance of spread. For this reason, radiation and chemotherapy are considered necessary to remove these freed cells.

Chemotherapy kills damaged cancerous cells. Chemotherapeutic drugs are very toxic, so they also damage healthy cells and cause side effects. Radiation also kills cancer cells. It has an advantage because a beam of radiation can be localized to very specific sites, but side effects are also common with this form of treatment.

Although chemotherapy is constantly changing, most people are unaware of how it fits into the larger picture. One pare of this is to look at the statistics of effectiveness. Dr. Ralph Moss does exactly this with his book, Questioning Chemotherapy, and what he reveals is quite startling. While chemotherapy is effective in certain cancers, such as Hodgekin’s lymphoma and childhood leukemia, is is far less successful for other forms of cancer.

However, virtually all the alternative therapies, while far less toxic, do not have behind them anywhere near sufficient scientific proof, and, to make things worse, the information available on how they work and their clinical results are as confusing and contradictory as can be imagined. What research there is shows that abandoning conventional treatment altogether for alternative treatment increases your risk of death.

All the top herbalists that I know in this field insist that their patients follow standard therapy, while the natural medicines are used as adjuncts to hopefully reduce side effects and improve results.

The new cancer patient is thus left with difficult choices. Part of the answer to this problem is to look to the experience of other cultures, where there is a long historical record of cancer treatments.

One of the things that jumped out at me was found in the Ayurvedic writings on cancer, where they used herbal treatments for centuries with only low levels of success, until the Siddhas, mystics with Ayurvedic training, began experimenting with use of unusual substances like lizard blood and heavy metals. They reported some new successes.

If you look at this from a modern perspective, it gives a sort of historical insight that combining nutritional and tonification therapies with the use of toxins to attack the tumors directly may yield stronger results than either by itself. The incorporation on new medicines used to stimulate red and white blood cell formation is also a historical move in the same direction.

The Importance of Complementary Treatment of Cancer

The problems posed by the treatment of cancer is an excellent example of the need for combined and cooperative treatment. The history of medicine is replete with warring schools of thought. The eclectic physicians of the last and early part of this century were almost wiped out by opposing forces, and today insurance and licensing issues hold a powerful grip on the practice of medicine. I predict this will change for three compelling reasons:

1. The history of freedom of choice and individual rights rooted in the American Constitution will eventually overcome restrictions, though this will no doubt require expensive court battles.

2. Scientific studies will continue to show the benefits of using natural medicines in combination with allopathic techniques and medicines.

3. Patients will continue to demand that they get the best medicines available, no matter what the source.

The book Complementary Cancer Therapies by Dan Labriola, ND, gives an excellent simplified overview of the major chemotherapeutic chemicals and their side effects. These include bone marrow suppression, nausea and vomiting, kidney and liver toxicity, heart and lung toxicity, hair loss, mouth sores, nerve damage and intestinal tract damage.

Dr. Labriola is an expert on the integration of alternative and allopathic cancer treatments. He introduces the concept of the “protected zone,” the time period where chemotherapy or radiation is attacking cancerous cells.  He also theorizes that certain alternative treatments should be avoided at those times, pointing out that the avoidance of side effects with many nutritional treatments may be interfere with the cancer-killing effects of the allopathic drugs in the protected zone (Labriola, 2000).

On the other hand, a review of available evidence “demonstrates that exogenous antioxidants alone produce beneficial effects in various cancers, and, except for a few specific cases, animal and human studies demonstrate no reduction of efficacy of chemotherapy or radiation when given with antioxidants” (Bland, 2000). The same holds true for many herbal combinations tested in China (Zhou & Liu, 1991).

However, there are undoubtedly dangers, as shown by the negative study discussed below. My current clinical judgement is that until we know more, you should avoid strong antioxidant herbs or vitamins two days prior to and four days after a chemotherapy or radiation treatment, both as a precaution and to relieve anxiety in patients and oncologists. However, I still recommend use of herbal agents that have shown benefit in strengthening immune response, but only in strict accordance with signs and symptoms, and based upon a clear strategy.

Research Highlights

• In one study, herbal formulas with ginseng root, astragalus root and other TCM herbs were used in combination with chemotherapy (vincristine, cyclophosphamide, methotrexate and carmustine), radiotherapy and immunotherapy to treat 54 cases of small-cell lung cancer. Survival rates increased dramatically, with some patients gaining an estimated 3-17 years of survival (Cha RJ et al., 1994).

• A Chinese study analyzed 285 cases of metastatic carcinoma in the supraclavicular lymph nodes. Patients were treated by five methods: Chinese medication, radiotherapy plus Chinese medication, chemotherapy plus Chinese medication, combined Chinese and Western medicine and expectant (palliative) treatment. Researchers reported that “Analysis shows that radiotherapy plus Chinese medication has the best curative effect with an effective rate of 75.5%. The effective rates were 74.2% for the combined treatment, 55.5% for the chemotherapy plus medication, 12.5% for the Chinese medication, and none for expectant treatment” (Cui and Li, 1995).

• Injections of extracts of ginseng root and astragalus root were used with chemotherapy on 176 human cases of digestive tract tumors. Results showed that in comparison to controls, the injections reduced the toxic effects of the chemotherapy, significantly protected white blood cells, and reduced failure due to lowered WBC counts. In follow-up experiments on animals the injections also prolonged survival times (Li NQ, 1992).

• A placebo controlled double-bind clinical study was done on primary liver cancer using TCM tonic herbs and radiation therapy. The one-year, three-year and five-year survival rates of the group that received herbs were higher than the control group survival by 20.0%, 23.4% and 16.6% respectively (Han JQ et al., 1997).

Negative study. A clinical trial of 60 cases of nasopharyngeal carcinoma used combined treatment of radiotherapy and TCM tonic herbs. A five-year follow-up showed a metastatic rate 2.67 times higher for treated patients than for controls (Han JQ et al., 1995). The medicine used in the study (Fuchunpian) consists of very strongly warming tonic herbs rather than anti-inflammatory and nourishing herbs, demonstrating the importance of proper herbal choices.