Chinese herbal medicine is a major aspect of traditional Chinese medicine, which focuses on restoring a balance of energy, body, and spirit to maintain health rather than treating a particular disease or medical condition.
Because of the large number of Chinese herbs used and the different uses recommended by practitioners, it is difficult to comment on Chinese herbal medicine as a whole. There may be certain herbs or extracts that can play a role in cancer prevention and in treatment of cancer and other diseases when combined with mainstream treatment.
Chinese herbal medicine uses a variety of herbs such as astragalus, ginkgo, ginseng, green tea, and eleuthero (also known as “Siberian ginseng”) in different combinations to restore balance to the body. Herbal blends are said to prevent and treat hormone disturbances, infections, breathing disorders, and a vast number of other ailments and diseases.
Most Chinese herbalists do not claim to cure cancer. They use herbal medicine with mainstream treatments prescribed by oncologists, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy. They claim that herbal remedies can help ease the side effects of standard cancer treatments, control pain, improve quality of life, strengthen the immune system, and in some cases, stop tumor growth and spread.
One aspect of Chinese herbal medicine aims to restore or strengthen immunity and resistance to disease.
In China, more than 3,200 herbs and 300 mineral and animal extracts are used in more than 400 different formulas. Herbal formulas may contain 4 to 12 different ingredients, to be taken in the form of teas, powders, pills, tinctures, or syrups.
With the increase in popularity of herbal medicine, many Chinese herbs are now sold individually and in formulas. Before choosing a mixture of herbs for a patient, the traditional Chinese practitioner will typically ask about symptoms and examine the patient, often focusing on the skin, hair, tongue, eyes, pulse, and voice, in order to detect imbalances in the body.
Some herbs and herbal formulations have been evaluated in animal, laboratory, and human studies in both the East and the West with wide-ranging results. Research results vary widely depending on the specific herb, but several have shown activity against cancer cells in laboratory dishes and in some animals.
There is some evidence from randomized clinical trials that some Chinese herbs may contribute to longer survival rates, reduction of side effects, and lower risk of recurrence for some types of cancer, especially when combined with conventional treatment. Many of these studies do not list the herbs that were tested.
Although the long history of traditional Chinese herbal medicine is sometimes interpreted as evidence of safety, it is important to note that many of these herbs are no longer produced and used as they were in the past. An herb may have been used safely under the supervision of a traditional practitioner.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.