Herbal medicine and cancer
Herbal medicine uses plants, or mixtures of plant extracts, to treat illness and promote health. There is not enough reliable scientific evidence to use it as a treatment for cancer.
- Herbal medicine uses plants or plant extracts to treat illness and promote health.
- There is not enough scientific evidence to use it as a cancer treatment.
- Herbal medicines might have side effects and interact with other medicines.
- Herbal medicines may not be regulated if made outside the UK, and what they contain can vary. If you are going to buy herbal remedies it is safest to buy them from a fully qualified herbal practitioner.
What is herbal medicine?
Herbal medicines are made from plants. They use combinations of plant parts, for example leaves, flowers or roots. Each part of the plant can have a different medicinal use. Manufacturers use different ways of extracting the chemicals from the plant parts. They use fresh and dried plants to make the medicine.
Herbal medicine aims to restore your body, so that it can protect, regulate and heal itself. It is a whole body approach. It looks at your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It is sometimes called phytomedicine, phytotherapy or botanical medicine.
Manufacturers make many drugs from plants. But herbalists don’t extract plant substances in the way the drug industry does. Herbalists believe that the remedy works due to the delicate chemical balance of the whole plant, or mixtures of plants, and the effects are not just due to one active ingredient.
The two most common types of herbal medicine used in the UK are Western and Chinese herbal medicine. Less common types include Tibetan or Ayurvedic medicine (Indian) and Unani Tibb.
Western herbal medicine
Western herbal medicine focuses on treating the whole person rather than their illness. So, the herbalist looks at your:
- personal health history
- family history
Western herbal therapists usually make medicines from European and North American herbs. They also use some herbs from the Chinese and Indian traditions.
Herbalists use remedies made from whole plants or plant parts. They believe it helps your body to heal itself or to reduce the side effects of medical treatments.
Chinese herbal medicine
Chinese herbal medicine is part of a whole system of medicine. The system is called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
TCM aims to restore the balance of your Qi (pronounced chee). TCM practitioners believe that Qi is the flow of energy in your body and is essential for good health.
Yin and yang refer to different qualities of Qi. When all of the yin and yang aspects of Qi are in harmony with one another, there is health, wellbeing and peace. Illness is due to a disturbance of the balance between yin and yang. Chinese herbalists use plants according to how they affect a part of the body or energy channel.
- massage therapy
- herbal remedies
- traditional breathing and movement exercises called qi gong (pronounced chee goong)
- movement exercises called tai chi (pronounced tie chee)
TCM uses hundreds of medicinal substances from plants. Practitioners may use different parts of plants. They might use the leaves, roots, stems, flowers or seeds. Usually, they combine herbs and you take them as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.
Why people with cancer use herbal medicine
Herbal medicine is one of the most used complementary and alternative therapies by people with cancer.
People have used herbal medicine for centuries to treat many different health conditions. They believe it is a natural way to help you relax and cope with anxiety and depression or to help with other conditions such as:
- hay fever
- irritable bowel syndrome
- menstrual (period) problems
People might also use herbal medicine to help themselves to feel better or more in control of their situation.
How you have it
During your first visit, the herbalist will ask you general questions about your health, lifestyle and diet. They will take a medical history and find out about any medication or supplements you are taking.
They will also do a physical examination. This might include taking your pulse and blood pressure and examining your skin, nails, tongue and eyes. They might also feel your abdomen.
The herbalist will then decide which remedies you need. They will usually make it while you wait.
The remedy might be:
- a diluted alcohol solution of plant parts (tincture)
- powders made into tablets or capsules
- water-based solutions like a tea that you make from raw herbs
- oil-based solutions like a cream or ointment
Your herbalist may suggest that you go back for another appointment after a few weeks. How long you continue seeing them will depend on why you are using herbal medicine.
Who shouldn’t use herbal medicine
This depends on which herbal medicine you want to have.
It is important to check with your doctor first before taking any herbal remedies if you:
- have any medical condition, including cancer
- are having radiotherapy
- are pregnant or breastfeeding
- are due to have surgery in the next few weeks
- are having other cancer treatment (conventional, complementary or alternative)
Using herbal medicines safely
Many people assume that products are safe to use when marketed as natural or herbal.
Some herbal medicines are safe to use but others may have severe and potentially dangerous side effects if used incorrectly. Some herbal medicines can interact with prescription drugs and other cancer treatments you are having. Check with your cancer specialist before taking any herbal medicines.
Some herbal treatments might affect the way your body processes cancer drugs. For example the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in America says that St John’s wort can cause your body to get rid of the drug, imatinib (Glivec), quicker. This means it could make the imatinib less effective at treating your cancer.
Some herbal medicines might increase the effect of cancer drugs. This means that you could have too much treatment.
Other herbal medicines can interfere with some drugs. For example, Asian ginseng and bilberry can increase the risk of bleeding after surgery.
Some herbal remedies may make your skin more sensitive to light. Do not take them while having radiotherapy.
Each type of herbal remedy might have side effects. Some are safe to use and do not have any noticeable side effects. But some plants are poisonous to humans and can have serious and severe side effects.
Always tell your doctor if you are using any type of herbal remedy. It might be helpful to ask your herbalist for a list of all the ingredients in your herbal remedy. Then if you do have any side effects, your doctor will know what you have taken.
You, your doctor or herbalist can report side effects. You can report it to the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA). The MHRA is the UK regulatory body. It collects information about the side effects of drugs, including herbal medicines.
Let both your herbalist and doctor know immediately if you feel worse or ill while you are taking herbal medicine.
Research into herbal medicine for cancer
There is no reliable evidence from human studies that herbal remedies can treat, prevent or cure any type of cancer.
Some clinical trials seem to show that certain Chinese herbs may help people to live longer, might reduce side effects, and help to prevent cancer from coming back. This is especially when combined with conventional treatment.
But many of the studies are published in Chinese, and some of them don't list the specific herbs used. Some journal articles don't give enough detail on how the researchers did the studies.
It is difficult to know how reliable the research is and which herbs may be helpful. But there are trials looking into this.
There is no reliable evidence that herbal remedies can prevent cancer.
Chinese researchers did a cohort study in 2018. A cohort is a group of people, so cohort studies look at groups of people. The researchers follow the group over a period of time.
The researchers in this study looked at people with oesophageal (food pipe) cancer. And who might develop a second primary (new) cancer of the head and neck. The researchers followed the group over 10 years. One part of the group received Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) and the other part did not.
The results showed that the group of people who took CHM had fewer cases of a second primary cancer of the head and neck. This was when the researchers compared them to the group that did not take CHM. The researchers suggested that CHM might prevent a second primary cancer of the head and neck in people with oesophageal cancer. The results looked promising. But the people in the study received different types of CHM. This might make the results of the study less accurate.
There is evidence that some herbal remedies might prevent or relieve cancer symptoms. And that it might help with treatment side effects. But we need results from large clinical trials. This way we can know which herbs are safe to use alongside conventional cancer treatment.
A Cochrane review of studies in 2018 looking at preventing a dry mouth in people having radiotherapy for head and neck cancer. They found that there was not enough evidence to say that Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) can prevent the feeling of dry mouth. This was in people who had radiotherapy with or without chemotherapy to the head and neck.
Another Cochrane review of studies in 2018 found that there was not enough evidence to use CHM as a treatment for oesophageal cancer. But they said that it might help with quality of life. And that it might relieve some side effects caused by radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
A third Cochrane review of studies in 2018 looked at moxibustion. Moxibustion involves the burning of herbs above the skin at acupuncture pressure points.
The researchers found little evidence to say that it helped with side effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Or that it helped with quality of life in people with cancer. But the researchers felt that the evidence was not clear enough to rule out some benefits or risks of this treatment. They suggested better quality studies.
Another review in 2020 looked at whether acupuncture and moxibustion could help with cancer related fatigue (tiredness). Some of the studies suggested that these types of Chinese medicine might help with fatigue. They say more research is needed with better quality studies.
Chinese researchers did a review study in 2019. The researchers looked at studies that used different types of CHM. The studies looked at how to relieve perimenopausal symptoms in women who had surgery, chemoradiotherapy or hormone treatment for breast cancer. Perimenopausal means the transition time to full menopause.
The researchers found that CHM might improve perimenopausal symptoms. But suggested better quality, precise and in-depth studies.
Some laboratory tests have found certain plants or plant extracts have anti-cancer qualities. Manufacturers made these into cancer drugs such as Taxol from the Pacific yew tree.
But, there is no scientific evidence from human trials that herbal medicine can treat or cure cancer. We need large trials to prove this.
Researchers did a laboratory study in 2019. They looked at the use of Chang-wei-qing (CWQ) as a treatment to prevent a certain type of bowel cancer. The researchers found that CWQ showed an anti-cancer (anti-tumour) effect. But this was a laboratory study, and we need more research.
Chinese researchers did a case study of 182 patients with pancreatic cancer. All of the patients received Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM). It showed that people having herbal medicine might survive longer. This was a case study and isn’t evidence to use it as a treatment. We need more research.
Chinese researchers did a review study in 2018. They looked at several studies on CHM. The researchers said that CHM showed positive results. This was as a therapy to use with other types of cancer treatment. They also said that CHM can help chemotherapy and radiotherapy to work better.
They felt that CHM can help to control certain cancer genes. And that it can influence the way cancer cells work. But they recommended more research to understand exactly how CHM works.
A Cochrane review in 2016 looked at studies using a type of CHM called Ganoderma lucidum to treat cancer. The researchers found that there was not enough evidence to use Ganoderma lucidum as a treatment for cancer. But they suggested that it might be used alongside conventional cancer treatment to boost immunity. The researchers also said that future research should be of better quality studies.
How much it costs
Your first consultation with a herbalist will usually cost more than further appointments. Follow up appointments are generally shorter, so are likely to cost less.
You will also have to pay for the herbs your herbalist prescribes. These costs may vary from place to place in the UK.
A word of caution
Some herbal products in health food shops and pharmacies have to meet quality standards. They also need to provide information about their product. This includes the specific content and dose of the product and how safe it is.
In Europe, always buy products registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulates the registration of herbal products in the UK.
Some unlicensed herbal products have been found to contain illegal substances and toxic herbs. The manufacturers have not listed this on the packaging of the product. The amount of the active ingredient can also vary widely between products.
It is safest to buy herbal remedies from a fully qualified herbal practitioner. They have had training to work out which medicines are appropriate for you. They can also trace where their herbs and plants come from.
It is understandable that you might want to try anything if you think it might help treat or cure your cancer. Only you can decide whether to use an alternative cancer therapy such as herbal medicine.
You could harm your health if you stop your cancer treatment for an unproven treatment.
Some websites might promote herbal medicine as part of treatment for cancer. But no reputable scientific cancer organisations support any of these claims.
Questions to ask your therapist
- How many years of training have you had?
- How long have you been practising?
- Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
- Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)
Herbal medicine organisations
You can get further information about herbal medicines from the following organisations.
The EHTPA covers a group of organisations representing Ayurveda, Chinese Herbal Medicine, Traditional Tibetan Medicine and Western Herbal Medicine within Europe. They are working together to develop a set of practice and training standards for herbal medicine.
The BHMA aims to protect herbal medicine users, practitioners and manufacturers. It has an information service and can refer to locally qualified herbal practitioners.
PO Box 583
Tel: 0845 680 1134
The MHRA regulates medicines, medical devices and blood components for transfusion in the UK. This includes herbal products.
They have information about:
- the safety of herbal medicines including what consumers need to know
- advice and guidance about taking specific herbs
- which Ayurvedic medicines might contain harmful substances
Telephone: 020 3080 6000