When it comes to complementary approaches to malignant mesothelioma care, Chinese herbal medicine is a popular option, but how helpful are these regimens? And are they safe?
At Mesothelioma Circle, we know well that the definitive answer to these questions may still be years away. However, an article published in the journal PLOS ONE can help us understand things a little easier.
Chinese herbal medicine has been around for two millennia
One reason why Chinese herbal medicine is so fascinating is that it has been around for more than 2,000 years. Experts from the American Cancer Society say that this system was first established by the year 200 BC. However, it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (between the 1100s and 1500s) that the formulations were compiled into a book. The information entailed almost 2,000 herbs and extracts.
Western medicine became more widespread during the 20th century, and beginning in 1949, the Chinese government allowed for the use of both Western and traditional Chinese medicine. The latter started to become more popular in the U.S. in the 1970s.
How do Chinese herbs help cancer patients?
The underlying principles of traditional Chinese medicine are different from those of Western medicine because they are rooted in the idea that the human body has opposing forces of energy that need to be kept in balance. This system holds that disease is the result of this energy being thrown out of balance, and tools such as acupuncture and herbs can help correct the problem.
Reputable Chinese herbalists would not tell you that herbs alone can cure cancer. However, they may suggest that, when combined with Western treatments, herbs can strengthen the immune system, alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation, and improve overall quality of life.
Recently, a team of scientists wanted to review the evidence supporting the use of Chinese herbal medicine as a complementary therapy for non-small cell lung cancer patients. They reviewed 24 clinical trials, which included a combined 2,109 patients. While some had conventional chemotherapy only, others also received herbs such as astragalus or Chinese liquorice.
The authors of the review found that, when compared to patients who had only chemotherapy, those who also had Chinese herbal medicine has increased rates of survival at one year and fewer problems with nausea and vomiting.
However, they also said that larger clinical trials are needed to verify these results.
Consult your doctor first
Although this review sounds favorable, it is important to remember that Chinese herbs may contain substances that can react negatively in combination with your other medications. Never start a Chinese herb regimen without talking to your healthcare team first, and always remember that this approach is meant to complement standard Western medicine rather than replace it altogether.
There have also been other concerns that products on the market are tainted with harmful chemicals, such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Herbalists are more likely to be aware of product safety if they are licensed by a state board. However, the licensing procedures for traditional Chinese medicine may differ from state to state.
In case you need help looking for a reputable herbalist, try to make sure someone has been certified to practice by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, or NCCAOM. Alternatively, you can ask your healthcare team if they can provide a referral.