Examining Complementary & Alternative Cancer Treatments Part 8: Botanical and Herbal Products

While the significance of certain herbal and botanical products remain largely for supplementary use, these non-prescription remedies are also being used by cancer patients to control their disease or to manage symptoms associated with cancer and its treatment.

The use of herbs, herbal substances, and other botanical compounds as alternative cancer treatment have attracted a significant number of cancer patients who are seeking new ways to confront the disease. Although they are biologically active agents, which are proven to be helpful under the right circumstances, their effect on chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or on other prescription medications may be counterproductive when used by cancer patients.

Herbal and botanical products, despite common belief, are not exactly stable. They are viewed as unrefined pharmaceuticals that has the potential to cause physiological changes, both good and bad. Cautions, appropriate application, and potential use of botanical agents are discussed below.

Cannabis and Cannabinoids

Cannabis, commonly known as marijuana, is a notorious plant grown in many parts of the world. Although under federal law, possessing Cannabis is illegal in the United States, this has not stopped certain people from promoting this plant. its use is reportedly beneficial in treating of cancer-related side effects, such as nausea and vomiting.

Essiac/Flor Essence

Essiac and Flor Essence are herbal tea mixtures that are sold worldwide as health tonics or herbal dietary supplements. Essiac was first promoted as a cancer treatment in the 1920s while Flor Essence was created a number of years later. Supporters of Essiac and Flor Essence say that these products make the immune system stronger, have anti-inflammatory effects, and show anticancer activity.

Laboratory, animal, and human clinical studies with Essiac and Flor Essence have not reported clear evidence of an anticancer effect. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved Essiac or Flor Essence as a cancer treatment.

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is a plant whose fruit and seeds are used to make remedies for liver and bile duct ailments. The active ingredient found in milk thistle is silymarin, an antioxidant that, among other things, protects against cell damage and stimulates repair of liver tissue.

Milk thistle has been studied in laboratory cell lines and animal tumors for its potential to make chemotherapy less toxic and more effective, and to slow the growth of cancer cells.

Milk thistle is usually taken in capsules or tablets. It has been studied in a clinical trial of children with leukemia. There are quite a few bad side effects associated with the use of milk thistle or silymarin. It remains unknown if milk thistle may make anticancer medications or other drugs more or less effective when taken with them.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of milk thistle as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition, but it is widely available in the United States as an herbal dietary supplement.

Mistletoe Extracts

Mistletoe is a semiparasitic plant that grows on several types of common trees such as apple, oak, pine, and elm. Mistletoe extracts are usually given by injection under the skin or, less often, into a vein, into the pleural cavity, or into the tumor. Very few harmful side effects have been reported from the use of mistletoe extract.

Mistletoe extract has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory and to affect the immune system. However, there is limited evidence that mistletoe’s effects on the immune system to help the body fight cancer. Meanwhile, animal studies have suggested that mistletoe may be useful in decreasing the side effects of standard anticancer therapy, such as chemotherapy and radiation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition. The FDA does not allow injectable mistletoe to be imported, sold, or used except for clinical research .


PC-SPES is a mixture of eight herbs sold as a dietary supplement to keep the prostate healthy. Some batches of PC-SPES were found to contain prescription medicines. It was taken off the market and is no longer being made.

Herbs in PC-SPES have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many health problems for hundreds of years, including prostate disorders. The herbs used in PC-SPES have been reported to help keep cancer cells from growing or help prevent cell damage that can lead to cancer.

Selected Vegetables/Sun’s Soup

“Selected Vegetables” and “ Sun’s Soup ” are different mixtures of vegetables and herbs that are being studied as treatments for people with cancer. Dried and frozen forms of Selected Vegetables are sold in the United States as dietary supplements.

The vegetables and herbs in Selected Vegetables/Sun’s Soup may contain substances that block the growth of cancer cells and/or help the body’s immune system kill cancer cells. Researchers reported that the growth of tumors was slower in the mice that were fed ingredients in Selected Vegetables/Sun’s Soup, compared to the mice that ate standard food.

Researchers reported that some cancer patients lived longer and had better quality of life when they received Selected Vegetables/Sun’s Soup along with other treatments. Randomized controlled trials that include larger numbers of people are needed to confirm the results.

No mixture of Selected Vegetables/Sun’s Soup has been approved by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of cancer or any other medical condition.


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