I’ve been learning more about herbs and botanicals in cancer treatment lately. My friend who recently passed had been a nurse and med school student and chose to use several alternative treatments, including Chinese herbs, IP6, curcumin and a few others. For her they didn’t work, but she also started them when her disease was very advanced and beyond western medical treatments. In the end she felt one of her herbals caused her cancer to advance. Her CEA went from 300 to almost 2000 just a few months after she began using one herbal therapy, her CEA had not increased for over a year before then.

I think many believe over-the-counter herbs and supplements are universally safe, they are kind of seen as “vegetables” since they are from natural or plant sources. But that’s not always true. St. John’s Wort, an over-the-counter herb used to treat depression, can interfere with the effectiveness of some chemotherapies (it would have reduced the effectiveness of my particular chemotherapy by 40%). When everyone was sure anti-oxidants were healthful, one study found an almost 30% increase in lung cancer in smokers who took large doses of Vitamin A. Too much folic acid, a vitamin (more than 1mg a day), is thought to promote cancer growth.

Interesting, patients on the chemotherapy Velcade found that drinking green tea prevented all chemo side effects…it was found that the reason it prevented side effects was because blocked the action of the chemotherapy altogether and made it totally ineffective.

This is a great series of short videos published by Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the nation’s leading cancer treatment centers (where I was treated): Understanding Herbs and Botanicals in Survivorship. The lectures discuss nutrition, herbs, supplements and alternative and complementary therapies. They are worth watching. I’m adding today the link Ester posted in her comment, another great resource, About Herbs and Botanicals also offered on MSKCCs web site. I’ve put the link on my site a few times before, but not for awhile. I probably need to add it to my sidebar!

I was recently accused of being anti-alternative and anti-complementary therapies. I am not, though I prefer to go with treatments that have been tested and proven in clinical trials. It’s interesting; I have become very involved with the Alliance for Global Conservation and will be traveling to Washington DC in the near future to help with their efforts to preserve natural resources for pharmaceutical use…70% of current cancer drugs are derived from natural sources. My most effective chemo drug was derived from a tree, the Chinese Happy Tree…in essence a refined and tested herbal therapy. Plants evolve over hundreds of years to produce chemicals to protect them from disease, and some of the chemicals they produce also help us prevent and conquer disease. Many drugs I give as a nurse…digoxin, coumadin and many antibiotics are derived from plant sources.

Sometimes I scratch my head when patients tell me they don’t want to use chemo as they prefer to use herbal “natural” remedies…many of our chemo drugs are refined natural and herbal remedies derived from plants and nature. Some tell me they don’t want the “poison” of chemotherapy…well, maybe the chemicals in the chemo were “poisons” the plants developed to protect them from disease and threats.

For what it’s worth, I do drink green tea for health benefit, and I drink soy milk sometimes (it tastes an awful lot like regular milk, which I love, but has a longer expiration date!). I also take an herbal, milk thistle, as studies have shown it to protect the liver from toxins, and I am on a high dose of another drug for my RA that can cause severe damage the liver. I have checked, it won’t interfere with any medications I am on. I don’t really know if it protects me, but for me it seems harmless and may be of benefit…or maybe I’m wasting my money, but it’s not real expensive.

I guess what I think is most important is to tell your oncologist if you are using any herbal therapies or supplements (including green tea) in case they will interfere with your cancer treatment. As a nurse, we used to ask patients what prescription drugs they used, we now also ask them about herbals and supplements they take in case they might interfere with other prescription drugs we give them. We need to cover all of our bases.