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

Susan Grindstaff

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.

A cancer patient should consult her physician before using any herbal or homeopathic treatments.
A cancer patient should consult her physician before using any herbal or homeopathic treatments.

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.

Milk thistle may be effective in fighting tumors.
Milk thistle may be effective in fighting tumors.

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.

Certain herbal medicines have shown the ability to help fight prostate cancer.
Certain herbal medicines have shown the ability to help fight prostate cancer.

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.

Certain herbs have shown success in fighting cervical cancer.
Certain herbs have shown success in fighting cervical cancer.

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.

European mistletoe extract is injected around the sites of cancerous tumors.
European mistletoe extract is injected around the sites of cancerous tumors.

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