Together We Can -- Newsletter of the Joan Karnell Cancer Center

Fall 2002

Living Each Day Fully
Herbal Therapies:
Are They For Everyone?
Celebrate Life: Survivors Day '02
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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, like herbal 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 cancer.

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 too.)

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 the American 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).


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