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Herbs and Natural Supplements for Breast Cancer

A returning patient called me yesterday. She was a breast cancer survivor when I saw her as a student intern in Chinese medical school. If I had been more confident at the time, I would have suggested she be diligent in preventing a recurrence of breast cancer, and explained how she might attempt that with Chinese medicine.

Even if I had, however, she might not have followed my advice, because Chinese medicine's credibility has yet to catch up with its sophistication, efficacy, and research.

It's well known that acupuncture can help with palliative strategies in cancer- for pain relief, itching relief, and nausea. The topic examined less often is: can Chinese medicine fight cancer directly? Many acupuncture teachers and practitioners warn us not to claim that it can - they suggest there's some law against us treating cancer, and you can see how reactive conservative doctors might be to the idea. They are accustomed to having control of the treatment of all cancer, regardless of whether they can help individual patients, or how much damage their therapies cause. Still, there is research and a clinical track record that suggests Chinese medicine can do more than just reduce discomforts.

I can't resolve all by myself in this short space the political issues and ethical issues of alternative medical treatment. But, I suggest that if a patient who refuses conventional treatment, then their alternative practitioners should find out everything they can and do all they can to help the patient recover, or at least become more comfortable.

Even in my small alternative medicine library, I have 2 books on Chinese herbs for cancer, and a third that summarizes the research on natural compounds used in cancer therapy. On PubMed, I found even more scientific references about herbs and breast cancer specifically. It's not the case that there isn't research on this topic. Instead, as with much Chinese medicine research, the information is either unknown, or unused by Western physicians. What follows is a short summary of the scientific information I found (in less than an hour) on alternative medicine and breast cancer. At the end, I've provided some herbal formulas for practitioners.

Human Studies on Natural Compounds for Cancer Therapy:
John Boik, MacOM, LAc has contributed a weighty work called Natural Compounds in Cancer Therapy (Oregon Medical Press, 2001). It not only reviews hundreds of scientific references, but also explains many specific cancer disease processes. The following human studies are drawn from that book, but their specific references are also included.

Scientific research is done either in vitro (test tube), in animals, or in humans. Knowing that any non-human research is easily discounted by skeptics, I've chosen only the human studies. However, the other studies are also interesting and helpful, so if you want more, get Boik's book. All of the following are specific for breast cancer.

6 Bromelain tablets for 10 days corrected deficient macrophage activity. (1)
Vitamin C was found to not necessarily good for breast cancer and may actually have accelerated some patients' deaths, but those who lived had fewer recurrences. (2,3)
Eleuthrococcus stimulated the immune system in breast cancer patients. (4)
Higher levels of fat intake in breast cancer patients was associated with increased risks of recurrence and death. (5)
In post mastectomy breast cancer patients, there were higher survival rates among those who took enzymes. (6)
Enzyme therapy also improved weight gain, fatigue, depression and quality of life. (6)
A diet of 20% fish oil (24g/kg) improved the anti-tumor effect of the chemotherapy drug mitomycin due to enhanced lipid peroxidation. [This was a combined human/animal study where human cells were studied after transplantation to an animal] (7)
Vitamin D3 helps chemotherapy drugs work better. (8)

Chinese herbs for Breast Cancer

I have access to three sources for Chinese herbs and breast cancer. One is a book called Anticancer Chinese Drugs by Lien & Li, which surveys more than 120 plants used to treat cancer, and examines the chemical structure and effects of individual compounds from those plants. Below are 4 compounds from this book specifically for breast cancer. Unfortunately, none of these are among the 500 or so common Chinese herbs referred to in the standard reference, Materia Medica, by Bensky & Barolet. Note that there are closer to 12,000 substances called herbs used here and there in Chinese medicine.

Labiatae I. longitubis inhibits br ca cells in vitro (Lien/Li, 10).
Maytansine (from maytanus oratus, serrata, buchananii, and hookeri) prevents polymerization of tubulin to microtubules (ibid, 85). (9)
9-hydroxy-2-methyl-ellipticinum (from ochrosia moorei and borbonica) has therapeutic value in advanced breast cancer (ibid, 78). (10)

In phase III clinical trials, VP-16 (from podophyllum berberidaceae) has caused responses in a number of cancers including breast cancer (ibid, 60). (11)

More Science:

A quick search of PubMed for more research on herbs for breast cancer yielded 4 interesting results:

Huang lian (coptis) inhibited tumor growth (gastric, colon, breast)... "These results indicate that traditional Chinese herbs may represent a new source of agents designed for selective inhibition of cyclin dependent kinases in cancer therapy." (12)

Hemsleya amabilis extract significantly inhibited tumor cell growth and colony formation and promoted tumor cell death.(13)

Triptolide (TPL), a diterpenoid triepoxide purified from the Chinese herb Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F, in vitro inhibited the proliferation and colony formation of tumor cells and the antitumor effect of TPL was comparable or superior with that of conventional antitumor drugs, such as Adriamycin, mitomycin, and cisplatin. (14)

Huang qi root specifically inhibits gastric cancer cells growth in vitro - its mechanism is mainly inhibition of cancer cell growth, not attacking or dismantling of existing cancer cells. (15)

Chinese Herbal Formulas for Breast Cancer (For Practitioner Reference)

My final source is a book called Treating Cancer with Chinese Herbs (Hsu, Ohai Press, 1990). This book is mainly for practitioners to learn from and use. It is not scientifically referenced - of course, some Chinese physicians and writers are not familiar with the Western insistence on always quoting your sources, so some of this information may have science behind it. We just can't tell from Hsu's book. But here's a suggestion patients can try at home:

Combine the juice of 90g of fresh asparagus (or 30g peeled) with yellow wine (a traditional Chinese wine made from rice) once a day.

References:

1.Eckert K, Grabowska E, Stange R, et al. Effects of oral bromelain administrations on the impaired immunocytoxicity of mononuclear cells from mammary tumors. Oncol Rep 1999 Nov-Dec; 6(6):1191-9.
2.Poulter JM, White WF, Dickerson JW. Ascorbic acid supplementation and five year survival rates in women with breast cancer. Acta Vitaminol Enzymol 1984; 6(3):175-82.
3.Murata A, Morishige F, Yamaguchi H. Prolongation of survival times of terminal cancer patients by administration of large doses of ascorbate. Int J Vitam Nutr Res Suppl 1982; 23:103-13.
4.Kupin VI, Polevaia EB. [Stimulation of the immunological reactivity of cancer patients by Eleuthrococcus extract.] Vopr Onkol 1986; 32(7):21-6.
5.Saxe GA, Rock CL, Wisha MS, Schottenfield D. Diet and risk for breast cancer recurrence and survival. Breast Cancer Res Treat 1999 Feb; 53(3):241-53.
6.Klaschka F. Oral Enzymes in Oncology: Clinical studies on Wobe-MuGos. MUCOS Pharma GmbH, 1997. http://www.mucos.de
7.Shao Y, Pardini L, Pardini RS. Dietary menhaden oil enhances mitomycin C antitumor activity toward human mammary carcinoma MX-1. Lipids 1995 Nov; 30(11):1035-45.
8.This refers to 7 studies, referenced in shorter style: Ravid A. Cancer Res 1999 Feb 15; 59(4):862-7. Studzinski GP. J Natl Cancer Inst 1986 Apr; 76(4):641-8. Moffatt KA. Clin Cancer Res 1999 Mar; 5(3):695-703. Vink-van Wijngaarden T. Breast Cancer Res Treat 1994 Feb; 29(2):161-8. Saunders DE. Gynecol Oncol 1993 Nov; 51(2):155-9. Cho YL. Cancer Res 1991 Jun 1; 51(11):2848-53. Tanaka H. Clin Orthop 1989 Oct; (247):290-6.
9.There were promising Phase I trials on maytansine against breast cancer in the 1980's, but phase II trials were disappointing.
10.Juret P, Heron JF, Couette JE, Delozier T, Le Talaer JY. Hydroxy-9-methyl-2-ellipticinium for osseous metastases from breast cancer: a 5-year experience. Cancer Treat Rep. 1982 Nov; 66(11): 1909-16.
11.Slayton RE, Blessing JA, Delgado G. Phase II trial of etoposide in the management of advanced or recurrent endometrial carcinoma: a Gynecologic Oncology Group Study. Cancer Treat Rep. 1982 Aug; 66(8): 1669-71. No abstract available.
12.Li XK, Motwani M, Tong W, Bornmann W, Schwartz GK. Huanglian, A chinese herbal extract, inhibits cell growth by suppressing the expression of cyclin B1 and inhibiting CDC2 kinase activity in human cancer cells. Mol Pharmacol. 2000 Dec; 58(6): 1287-93.
13.Wu J, Wu Y, Yang BB. Anticancer activity of Hemsleya amabilis extract. Life Sci. 2002 Sep 20; 71(18): 2161-70.
14.Yang S, Chen J, Guo Z, Xu XM, Wang L, Pei XF, Yang J, Underhill CB, Zhang L. Triptolide inhibits the growth and metastasis of solid tumors. Mol Cancer Ther. 2003 Jan; 2(1): 65-72.
15.Lin J, Dong HF, Oppenheim JJ, Howard OM. Effects of astragali radix on the growth of different cancer cell lines. World J Gastroenterol. 2003 Apr; 9(4): 670-3.

About the Author

Acupuncturist, herbalist, and medical professor Brian B. Carter founded the alternative health megasite The Pulse of Oriental Medicine (http://www.PulseMed.org/). He is the author of the book "Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure" (November, 2004). Brian speaks on radio across the country, and has been quoted and interviewed by Real Simple, Glamour, and ESPN magazines.

Brian B. Carter, MS, LAc