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What are the Pros and Cons of Using Herbal Medicine for Cancer?

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  • Written By: Susan Grindstaff
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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The main benefit to using herbal medicine for cancer seems to relate to side effects. In most cases, herbal medicine for cancer does not result in side effects of the same severity as do more traditional methods of treatment. The main drawback is that herbal medicines have not undergone the same type of rigorous testing as traditional medicines, and little is known about the actual success rate of herbal remedies. Some of more promising herbal remedies for cancer are treatments using extract of European mistletoe and the dietary supplement milk thistle.

European mistletoe extract, when used as a cancer treatment, is administered by injecting the extract in or around the area where a tumor is growing. Unlike many other types of herbal medicine for cancer, European mistletoe extract has been the subject of some clinical study. In laboratory testing, this extract did appear to kill cancer cells. It also had the effect of prohibiting development of new blood cells necessary for tumor growth. European mistletoe extract is also believed to help boost the immune system, and in studies seemed to help decrease some of the side effects of chemotherapy.

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The downside to using European mistletoe extract as a cancer treatment is primarily related to the studies themselves. Some researchers argue that the trial testing did not have the number of test subjects necessary for a comprehensive study. Though most researchers agree that European mistletoe extract does not pose any significant risk to the patients, some argue that more rigorous testing is needed. In addition to some suspicion regarding testing, another downside to the extract is that in some countries it is very difficult to obtain the treatment. In the United States, for instance, it is illegal to import injectable European mistletoe extract.

Milk thistle is a dietary supplement made from seed extracts from the milk thistle plant. The extract contains sylmarin and silybin, two medicinal components believed to be useful in combating cancer. In case studies, these compounds proved to be successful in fighting prostate cancer, breast cancer, and cervical cancer. In mice that were given milk thistle twice per day, a noticeable shrinkage of tumors resulted. In testing on human subjects, results seemed to indicate that milk thistle might have contributed to the shrinkage of tumors in subjects suffering from leukemia.

Once again, as with European mistletoe extract, the biggest drawback concerning using milk thistle as an herbal medicine for cancer is the reliability and scarcity of testing. Some researchers believe that much more study is necessary before recommending the supplement for cancer treatment. In terms of potential side effects, milk thistle appears to be safe, with side effects being reported as minor.

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