Ask Dr. Block: What is your philosophy regarding using herbal medicine to treat cancer?

There are few individual herbs that I believe actually shrink tumors in patients. That said, we have seen some cases of high-dose, multi-targeted herbal treatments that, combined with a diet and exercise program to re-balance terrain, have had some impressive results with specific cancers. There are several herbs that have very interesting early-stage research suggesting that they may contribute to controlling cancers. The most powerful contribution that most herbs make to cancer treatment, though, is their ability to safely and gently help patients balance and correct the disruption of internal terrain factors such as inflammation and oxidation, both of which promote the growth of cancer as well as degrade quality of life. In addition, there are several herbs and supplements that appear to help make chemotherapy and other treatments more tolerable. An example of this is ginger, which has recently been found in randomized trials to help ease nausea from chemotherapy treatments.

My research staff and I have been delving into the area of tumor molecular growth pathways and nutrients/herbs for well over a dozen years now. We have been working on and developing tumor type specific molecular panels over these years. This is a big area of research in the world of Big Pharma; and nutrients have been shown to have profound effects on tumor growth pathways; in fact, nutrients/herbal extracts may have an advantage over drugs because they are nontoxic and have what is known as pleiotropic activity (hitting many targets versus a single target like a drug is designed to do). The other advantage of nontoxic nutrients is they can be used in anticipation of the tumor’s next molecular “chess” move. When one growth pathway is blocked, the typical tumor response (yes, it could be said that tumors have a malicious intelligence of sorts) is to find the next convenient pathway (which can be referred to as substitute or compensatory pathway). Drugs are too toxic – and generally too costly – to be useful in this strategy, but herbs/nutrients can be helpful here, potentially slowing down tumor progression. However, some herbs can address multiple targets at one time. For example, curcumin is able to regulate not just a single molecular target, but entire pathways (the entire communication network from start to finish). For example, it has been shown to regulate TNFalpha, COX-2, EFGR, HER2/neu receptor, VEGF, Topoisomerase, tubulin, CXCR4, MMP-9 and pAKT.

While most of the research is still in the early preclinical stages, most herbs are safe, though it’s important to be aware that some may interact with certain drugs. A common example is St. Johns Wort, which can interact with many drugs. Therefore, we generally discourage its use, unless a patient is able to avoid the concurrent use of any conventional drugs that it may have an unfavorable interaction with. As always, we recommend consulting with an integrative physician experienced with and knowledgeable about the use of herbs and supplements prior to using them, particularly if you are undergoing treatment for cancer.

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