Herbal Therapies: Are They For Everyone?
When a patient receives a cancer diagnosis,
a common first step is to research every possible
treatment, including alternative treatments,
therapies. There are numerous opportunities
to receive information from the media, internet,
health food stores and well-intended friends
regarding herbal therapies that may help to fight
While there may be beneficial herbal
therapies, you need to use them cautiously because
any substance that has the potential to do good,
has the potential to do harm. Natural ingredients
are not necessarily safe. (Remember arsenic is
considered a “natural” ingredient
Prior to investigating an herbal treatment or a vitamin supplement,
here are some things to consider:
- Look for references with studies of people
with cancer. Do not be swayed by glossy advertisements.
If you have received literature on a product
that gives a glimmer of hope for a cure, pass
by all of the claims and look for references.
Are there studies that address the use of this
product in humans with cancer? Always ask “where
is the evidence?” Studies conducted
in a test tube or on animals may not be translated
equally to humans.
- What is the strength of the evidence? Is the evidence convincing,
probably effective, possibly useful or is there insufficient or
no evidence of the products' effectiveness. Unfortunately,
there really are a limited number of products that have been thoroughly
studied in randomized trials.
- What are the side effects associated with a therapeutic dose of
the herb? Know the side effects so you can watch for them. Unfortunately,
chemotherapy may cause nausea, vomiting and bowel distress, but
these may also be a side effect of the herb. It's important
to know the cause.
- Is there a possibility of drug/herb interaction? Many herbs are
known to have a negative interaction with the drug Coumadin. St.
John's Wort, commonly taken for mild depression, may interact
with other antidepressants, cause drug resistance to antiretroviral
drugs and interfere with some chemotherapies and anticoagulants
(such as Coumadin).
- What is the monthly cost? What are you willing to spend? If a
product costs $300 per month and the data is weak, this is probably
not cost effective for you.
Dan Labriola, a Naturpathic doctor warns about the use of herbal
and vitamin therapies during chemotherapy or radiation in the book Complementary
Cancer Therapies. He labels the period where the chemotherapy
or radiation is working as the protected zone. It is important to
not use a nonconventional therapy during this period if there is the
risk that it may decrease the effectiveness of the treatment or further
stress processing organs.
Herbal products are not a regulated industry and there are no established
standards. You may be getting ingredients other than what you see
on the label. A recent example is the herbal combination PCSpes which
has been used by men with prostate cancer. An evaluation of the product
found three additional prescription drugs in the product: diethylstilbestrol,
Xanax and Coumadin (warfarin). The manufacturer of this product has
now withdrawn it from the market and issued a product recall. These
ingredients had caused serious side effects.
Many herbs and vitamins alter the platelets, a factor of blood that
allows you to clot and not bleed excessively. A few of these are garlic,
ginkgo and ginseng. Ginseng can cause blood sugar levels to drop.
With this in mind, it is especially important to communicate with
your physician the use of these over-the-counter medications if you
are going to have surgery. Your doctor may recommend stopping the
use of all herbs and vitamins at least one week prior to surgery.
Be upfront with your physician about the use of herbs, vitamins and
other supplements. There are resources on herbs available to you through
the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. A copy of
Cancer Society's Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods is
available for your review in the resource library. Available on request
are the PDR (Physician's Desk Reference) for Herbal Medicines
and the PDR for Nutritional Supplements.
For questions regarding herbal treatments and complementary therapies,
feel free to us at 1-800-789-PENN (7366).