Does traditional Chinese medicine have a role in helping patients fight cancer?
Herbal remedies and acupuncture aim to rebalance the body for self-healing and improve quality of life, but Hong Kong oncologists say some herbs can undermine effective Western treatments
When Joyce Ho (not her real name) was diagnosed with breast cancer, she considered traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to help manage her illness. “Chemotherapy treatments were taking a lot out of me and I considered using some herbs to boost my immune system,” says the 45-year-old high school teacher. “I was under the impression that they could improve my condition, but a discussion with my oncologist changed my mind. He told me about a few other cancer patients whose herbal remedies had caused harmful interactions with their Western drugs. Still, I was keen to try TCM, so I went with acupuncture instead. This really helped to relieve the anxiety and discomfort I was experiencing at the time.”
According to Grace Yu, a registered TCM practitioner at Balance Health in Central, the aim of TCM is not to cure disease but to rebalance the body so that it can focus on healing itself. It can also be used to improve a weak patient’s quality of life, as in the case of late-stage terminal illnesses, she says.
“In TCM, cancer is not seen as a disease but rather, an imbalance within the body that needs to be addressed,” says Yu. “This is why we look at the patient’s system as a whole when treating cancer. In my view, certain cancers can be cured with TCM, while others can be controlled, and in the latter cases discomfort and pain are reduced.”
Yu says that contrary to popular belief, TCM does not attack cancer cells. Instead, it enhances the body’s immunity, increasing energy levels and improving the body’s ability to deal with the disease. “Some herbs are useful for this,” she says. “For example, if your yang energy is weak, we will use astragalus, and if the yin energy is weak, we will use radix, depending on the patient’s body type.”
Before prescribing a suitable treatment, a practitioner assesses body type, diet, lifestyle habits and stress management strategies. Yu says a lot about a patient’s health can be revealed in their pulse, coating on the tongue, energy levels, bowel movements and sleeping habits.
Cancer sufferers are advised to first discuss options with an oncologist before trying TCM. “I have no objection to cancer patients using TCM if they feel that it will help them, but it really depends on what the treatment entails and what evidence exists to support its safety and efficacy claims,” says Dr Victor Hsue Chan-chee, a clinical oncologist at Cancer Care Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui. “There’s a lot of postulation that traditional Chinese remedies can improve the side effects of Western cancer treatments, but so far I’ve not come across anything more than preliminary evidence for this. We need to have large-scale trials or studies before determining that TCM can, indeed, benefit cancer patients.”
According to Dr Foo Kian Fong, a senior consultant medical oncologist at Parkway Cancer Centre in Singapore, some Chinese herbal remedies can harm rather than help when they interact with Western drugs. “It’s not uncommon to hear of herbal interactions with chemotherapy causing a drop in white blood cell counts, liver problems or kidney failure for cancer patients,” he says. There are also cases where herbs prove useful, he added.
Hsue agrees. “TCM herbal remedies typically use as many as 10 or 20 herbs to address various cancer-causing factors, so the potential for harmful interactions certainly exists. I seldom allow my patients to take these.” He was less worried if some mild Chinese herbs were added to soup or tea to boost nutritional intake.
And what might have worked in the past may not be appropriate today, Hsue says. “It’s really only in the last 20 to 30 years that we’ve seen an explosion of cancer cases and that’s mainly due to changes in our diet and lifestyle habits. Some of these long-standing TCM treatments might have been helpful for addressing ailments suffered by the ancient Chinese, but who knows if those conditions were cancer?” In ancient China, coughing up blood might have been due to tuberculosis but today that could be symptomatic of lung cancer “so it doesn’t make sense to address the condition using a treatment that was developed for tuberculosis”.
Purity and quality of herbs also should be considered: how and where the herbs were grown, the processing, where they were stored and for how long – these can all affect the safety and efficacy of the treatment. “Such factors are crucial, but unfortunately they are difficult to control,” says Hsue. “Plus, you just don’t know if the treatment contains heavy metals or other harmful additives.”
Hsue also warns of the potential side effects of an immune system that’s too strong. “If you’re also undergoing immunotherapy as part of your cancer treatment, your immunity may become too strong and this may increase your risk of developing autoimmune diseases,” he says.
Foo says herbs with anti-cancer properties, like oldenlandia or ban zhi lian, can cause a drop in white blood cells. “When taken during chemotherapy, it can be a double whammy,” he says. “Therefore, it’s best to consume such herbs only after chemotherapy ends.”
Foo also says that patients with breast cancer who are hormone-receptor positive (that is, estrogen-receptor or progesterone-receptor-positive) should avoid herbs that contain phytoestrogens such as lingzhi, ginseng, dang shen, angelica, huai shan (wild yam), yin yang huo (epimedium), and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and black cohosh.
Lingzhi, for example, can improve a patient’s immunity and help fight fatigue but clinical observations have shown that a quarter of patients who take it while on chemotherapy show liver problems. And the antioxidant property of ginseng can render radiotherapy treatments less effective, says Foo.
To help rebalance a patient’s health, a TCM practitioner may also prescribe acupuncture. “Different acupuncture points connect to different organs,” says Yu. “By stimulating different acupressure points, messages are sent to different organs. In this way, the functions of the organs are improved and balance is restored to the whole system.”
Moxibustion is another important traditional Chinese therapy and involves burning dried mugwort (moxa) on particular points on the body. Yu says this can help eliminate toxins.