Herbal remedies have been used throughout history and in many traditional medicine systems. Herbal medicines are produced from various parts of plants containing active ingredients that can cause chemical changes in the body. Herbal preparations can be consumed or applied to the skin to treat disease and promote health. Therapies using herbs can also be called botanical medicine.
Benefits: Many scientific studies have examined the effects of various herbs on people with cancer. Some remedies have been proven to reduce side effects of cancer treatment. While many remedies don’t have scientific backing, historical usage suggests they may help with skin conditions and energy levels in people who have cancer.
Side effects: Some herbs may cause unwanted side effects and interact with conventional cancer treatment. For more information on the effects of specific herbs and botanicals, visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website.
Do herbs cure cancer?
There is no reliable scientific evidence that herbal remedies alone can cure or treat cancer. However, some plant extracts have been found to have anti-cancer effects and have been turned into chemotherapy drugs. These include vincristine from the periwinkle plant, and taxanes from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.
What it is: Western herbal medicine remedies are usually made from herbs grown in Europe and North America, but some come from Asia.
Why use it: Herbal preparations are often used to help with the side effects of conventional cancer treatments, such as lowering fatigue and improving wellbeing. Evidence shows they should be used in addition to conventional therapies, rather than as an alternative.
What to expect: After taking a case history, the practitioner puts together a holistic picture of your health. They will look for underlying reasons for your ill health or the symptoms you have, and dispense a remedy addressing the causes and symptoms of your illness. They may give you a pre-made herbal formula or make up a blend of herbs specifically for your needs. Herbal medicines can be prepared as liquid extracts that are taken with water or as a tea (infusion). They can also be prepared as creams or tablets.
Evidence: There is a wide body of research into the effectiveness and safety of many herbs, and some studies show promising results. Speak to your doctor and herbal medicine practitioner about the potential side effects of any herbal preparations.
Many pharmacies and health food stores sell herbal preparations. Ask your complementary therapist or pharmacist if these are of high quality and meet Australian standards.
Buy or use herbal products from qualified practitioners or reputable suppliers.
- Ask for products that are clearly labelled in English with your name, batch number, date, quantity, dosage, directions, safety information (if applicable) and your practitioner’s contact details.
- Avoid self-prescribing with over-the-counter products from a health food shop, pharmacy or the internet. Be aware that products from other countries that are sold over the internet are not subject to the same quality and safety regulations as those sold in Australia. Some Ayurvedic and Chinese products may contain lead, mercury and arsenic in high enough quantities to be considered toxic.
- Make sure you know how to prepare and take your herbs. Like conventional medicine, taking the correct dose at the right time is important for the herbal remedies to work safely. Talk to your doctor and complementary health practitioner, or call NPS MedicineWise’s Medicines Line on 1300 633 424 from anywhere in Australia, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm AEST. This service is staffed by registered nurses who provide confidential, independent information about prescription, over-the- counter and complementary medicines.
- Ask the practitioner for ways to mask the taste of the herbs if you find them bitter.
- If you suspect you have had an adverse reaction to any kind of medicine, speak to your practitioner or call the NPS MedicineWise Adverse Medicine Events Line on 1300 134 237. If the reaction is serious, call 000 or go to your nearest emergency department.
What it is: Chinese herbs are a key part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Why use it: Herbs are given to unblock meridians, bring harmony between Yin and Yang, and restore organ function.
What to expect: The practitioner will take a case history and may do a tongue and pulse analysis to assess how your body is out of balance. They will choose a combination of herbs and foods that will help bring your body back into balance. Chinese herbalists select a combination of herbs to make their own formula, or they can dispense prepackaged herbal medicines. Herbs may be prescribed as tablets or as a blend of herbs that you make into a tea.
Evidence: As with Western herbal medicine, many Chinese herbs have been scientifically evaluated for use in the general population, with some positive results. Research has suggested that some Chinese herbs are worth exploring further, but there is no strong evidence that they stop cancer growing, spreading or recurring. Talk to your doctor, pharmacist and complementary medicine practitioner if you are thinking about using herbal preparations.
Many people believe herbs are safe simply because they are natural. This is not true. Taking the wrong dose, the wrong combination or using the wrong part of the plant may cause serious side effects or toxicity. Herbs can also cause harmful interactions when used with chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy. Ask your treatment team which herbs and supplements are suitable to take during cancer treatment.
St John’s wort – This popular herb for mild to moderate depression has been shown to stop some chemotherapy drugs and other medications from working properly. It may also increase skin reactions to radiotherapy. If you are feeling depressed, ask your doctor about other treatments.
Black cohosh – Herbalists often prescribe this to menopausal women who are experiencing hot flushes. While clinical trials show that black cohosh is relatively safe, it should not be used by people with liver damage. There is not enough scientific evidence to support the use of black cohosh in people with cancer.
Ginkgo biloba and garlic – Studies have shown that these may have a blood-thinning effect, which can cause bleeding. This could be harmful in people with low platelet levels (e.g. from chemotherapy) or who are having surgery.
Green tea – This has been shown to stop the cancer drug bortezomib (Velcade®) from working properly.
Keep your complementary therapists and other health professionals informed about any herbal remedies you use before, during or after cancer treatment. Knowing all this information will help them give you the best possible care.