Safety and Effectiveness of Herbal Medicines for Cancer Treatment

For many centuries, herbs, herbal substances, and botanical products have been used in traditional medicine to treat various diseases, including infections and malignant diseases. Several researches found that a number of herbal plants possess anticancer properties both in vitro and in vivo. Some of these plants include ginger, aloe vera, Boswellia, anise, and Dong Quai. They commonly come in the form of tablets, capsules, teas, creams, or tinctures.

They fight cancer by strengthening the immune system and preventing the spread of cancer cells. Specifically, they inhibit the growth of new blood vessels that feed the cancer cells and detoxify the body to quench free radicals that cause DNA mutational changes.

In addition to their anticancer effects, herbal medicines are also found to boost the immune system, ease cancer symptoms, and relieve treatment side effects. According to a large volume of clinical studies, combining herbal medicines with conventional cancer treatments can benefit the patients’ quality of life, survival, and immune modulation.

For these reasons, the use of herbal medicines has grown in popularity among cancer patients looking for other ways to confront their disease. A 2015 study by Bagcchi indicates that more than 35% of cancer patients in America use herbal medicines.

Due to their extensive use in cancer care, it is only crucial that patients know the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines. This article aims to enlighten each cancer patient considering using herbal medicines as part of their complementary or alternative cancer treatment by presenting facts on the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines.


Safety of herbal medicines for cancer treatment

Many people see herbal medicines as a more natural and safer treatment than conventional ones. The U.S. Food ad Drug Administration designates most herbs as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Although they are generally safe, some herbal medicines can have potential risks when misused.

One main risk is their interaction with conventional cancer treatments. For example, the American National Cancer Institute says that St. John’s wort can interfere with the body’s ability to utilize imatinib (an oral chemotherapy medication) in fighting cancer cells. Asian ginseng and bilberry are also found to interfere with some drugs and increase bleeding risk after surgery.

In other cases, some herbal medicines can increase cancer drug effects, resulting in overtreatment. Furthermore, there was a 2010 study that aimed to conduct a systematic review of herbal medicine use by cancer patients and identified 21 case reports of toxic effects and other adverse effects. The toxicity often occurs when herbal medicines are consumed in higher quantities or used at higher frequencies.

Although detected, adverse effects like hot flashes, headaches, dizziness, rashes, and indigestion are seldom serious and may be quickly abated through dose reduction or discontinued use. Other mild side effects like constipation are very common.

For these reasons, cancer patients should always get approval from their cancer specialist before taking any herbal medicine.


Effectiveness of herbal medicines for cancer treatment

Since there are not enough clinical trials with human subjects yet, herbal remedies cannot still be considered as a replacement treatment for conventional cancer treatments. Proving their effectiveness in treating cancer will require more extensive human studies.

A Cochrane review in 2016 investigated the use of Ganoderma lucidum as cancer treatment from various studies. The researchers found these studies insufficient as evidence for the effectiveness of this plant in treating cancer. However, they suggested that Ganoderma lucidum can be used as an immunity booster alongside conventional cancer treatment.

In smaller laboratory tests, there have been findings that herbal medicines possess anti-cancer properties, encouraging some drug manufacturers have used plant extracts in making cancer drugs. One example of this is Taxol which comes from the Pacific yew tree.

In terms of herbal medicines’ effectiveness in relieving cancer symptoms and side effects of treatments, numerous studies were sufficient to consider herbal medicines effective in these regards. In a 2020 review article by Habibeh et al., plants like ginger, mint, chamomile, garlic, onion, and cardamon were proven to reduce nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. Here are other examples of herbs that help cancer patients cope with the treatment side effects.

  • Turmeric: Due to its anti-inflammatory property, it can help reduce bruising for patients who have undergone surgery. Studies show that curcumin extract may be safe to combine with gemcitabine chemotherapy to help pancreatic cancer patients overcome resistance to this drug.
  • Mistletoe extracts: Studies found that extracts of mistletoe can be used as complementary medicine to help cancer patients with advanced tumors tolerate higher doses of the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine.
  • Burdock root: Due to its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and liver-protecting properties, burdock root can reduce inflammation and protect cancer patients against liver damage after cancer treatment.
  • Astragalus: This herb was found to reduce side effects of chemotherapy agents like carboplatin and cisplatin. A Medical Oncology-published study in 2012  showed that patients who received astragalus had improved appetite, better physical function, and less fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and pain compared to those who have only taken the chemotherapy drugs.

Wider studies on integrative oncology are needed to gather results from larger clinical trials. This field of medicine allows experts to identify specific herbal medicines that are effective to combine with traditional cancer treatments.

To conclude, herbal medicines are generally not as effective as conventional prescription drugs in treating cancer. All the studies presented above do not indicate that they can replace traditional cancer treatments. Still, they can help cancer patients cope with their symptoms and side effects experienced during treatment.

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