More Semantics! Cytotoxic, Anti-cancer & Anti-tumor

The term anti-cancer herb is all too emotive and can build up false hopes. The National Cancer Institute defines these terms in the following way :

  • A cytotoxic agent is toxic to tumors in laboratory cultures.
  • Anti-tumor activity occurs if this toxicity occurs to tumor cells in living animals.
  • Anti-cancer is reserved for materials toxic to tumor cells in clinical trials with humans.

This all leads to the conclusion that the holistically orientated herbalist’s tends to minimize the role of cytotoxic plants in their approach to cancer. They can be life-saving, but not as the core of treatment. There are inherent problems with such plants, but more importantly is the problem of how to use such potent plants in the therapeutic context discussed in this chapter.

One of the common argument put forward by the pharmacologist against the use of herbal medicines becomes relevant here. Pointing to the variable amounts of active constituents in natural plants, they would say this makes accurate prescribing or ensuring standardized dosage protocols impossible. As phytotherapy is founded upon the use of normalizers, or at most effectors that do not contain potent constituents, this is an irrelevant issue. However it is pertinent when issues around cytotoxic plants are discussed. The inherent variability of plant constituent levels make establishing appropriate dosage extremely problematic with the potentially harmful cytotoxic plants.

The fact that there are cytotoxic herbs does not mean that they must be used. Similarly, just because we know about many powerful poisons, powerful narcotics and powerful purgatives does not mean that herbalist uses them. The selection of remedies is dictated by the practitioners interpretation of the need, which in turn is an expression of the therapeutic philosophy they work with. Holistic practitioners would only consider using such powerful remedies within a treatment program that works in the broad way discussed at the beginning of this chapter. Those insights are either acted upon in practice or they just are more hot air, and there is enough air pollution already! Consideration of the dosage dilemma in the context of a therapeutic ecology that embraces non-herbal therapies where necessary has lead me to conclude :

If the practitioner concludes that direct cytotoxicity is appropriate, consider chemotherapy,

it may well be safer than using cytotoxic plants.

This may offend the `natural medicine’ purist, but the need of my patientsalways out-weighs any philosophical dogma I may be attached to. The perspectives of holism combined with the possibilities of immuno-stimulation and immuno-modulation reviewed earlier provides a context of treatment that does not depend upon using potentially poisonous plants. If needed, turn to the experts on poisons – the allopaths. Oriental research into whole plant effects is revealing a sound pharmacological basis for the value non-cytotoxic herbs in cancer therapy. Effects upon phagocytosis, interferon levels, humoral control and many others have been found. The findings listed below cited to suggest the possibilities.

It might seem that western herbalism is at a disadvantage, suffering in any researched based comparison of oriental and western plants. This is an artifact of the dearth of such quality research being done on plants used in our tradition. This does not mean they have no such effects, it simply reflects the stunted vision of the organizations that fund research in the west. References for all the information given below can be found in the book:

Pi-Kwang Tsung(1989). Immune System and Chinese Herbs. Institute of Chinese Herb, Irvine

Pharmacology of plants used in Chinese medicine as `anticancer remedies’

Plant `Active Constituents’ Pharmacological Activity

Astragalus mongholicus polysaccharides Intensifies phagocytosis of reticulo-endothelial systems and the pituitary-adrenal cortical function; restores hematopoetic function of bone marrow.

Codonopsis tangshen saponins, Enhances phagocytosis of macrophagocytes; polysaccharides counteracts leukopenia induced by chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Panax ginseng ginsenosides, Enhances pituitary-adrenal cortical function and panaxosides, phagocytic activity of macrophagocytes; increases panaxatriol content of immunoglobulin and cAMP in the adrenal gland; promotes lymphocyte transformation; restores hematopoietic function of bone marrow; increases hemoglobulin.

Eleutherococcus senticosus eleutherosides, Possesses actions similar to those of Panax ginseng; polysaccharides counteracts x-ray radiation, leukemia and drug- induced tumors; inhibits metastasis.

Poria cocos polysaccharides, Restores anti-tumor immuno-surveillant system.


Lentinus edodes polysaccharides Possesses actions similar to those of Ganoderma lucidum.

Glycyrrhiza echinata glycyrrhizin Intensifies pituitary-adrenal cortical function; inhibits cAMP phosphatase and increases content of cAMP in cardiac and pyloric mucus membrane; inhibits gastric tumors.

Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides Increases level of cellular immunity; inhibits growth of tumor cells.

Oldenlandia diffusa Stimulates reticuloendothelial system; intensifies phagocytosis.

Polyporus umbellatus polysaccharides, Regulates and stimulates immune system; promotes transformation of cancer cells into normal cells.

Interferon-Inducing Herbs

Interferons recently gained a reputation as the latest of a long line of miracle drugs. As with all such panaceas, they have not fulfilled the overblown expectations, however, they have an important role to play natural immunity. The whole range of interferons posses anti-tumor and anti-viral activity. They are small, soluble proteins generated by cells when infected by RNA or DNA containing viruses. One unique property is that they are virus specific, exerting a kind of `broad-spectrum’ effect. Other properties include :

  • either an enhancement or suppression of humoral and cellular immune functions depending upon dosage,
  • stimulation of macrophage and natural killer cell activity,
  • an anti-tumor activity in, amongst others, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast and ovarian carcinoma.

Medical applications are limited by the marked toxicity associated with its use as a drug. Another approach is to promote or stimulate the natural cellular sources.

Herbs that stimulate interferon production in laboratory tests

Alpinia oxyphylla

Amomum villosum

Angelica dahurica

Angelica sinensis

Appinia offecinarum

Aquilaria sinensis

Arctium lappa

Areca catechu

Artemisia capillaris

Artemisia orgyi

Asarum heterotropoides

Asparagus lucidus

Aster tataricus

Astragalus membranaceus

Atractylodes ovata

Benincasa cerifera

Bupleurum chinensis

Carthamus tinctorius

Cimicifuga heracocifolia

Cnidium monnieri

Coriolus versicolor

Corydalis balbosa

Cryptotympana atrata

Curcuma zedoaria

Cyperus rotundus

Dendrobium officinale

Eucommia ulmoides

Euphorbia kansui

Evodiae fructus

Foeniculum vulgare

Gastrodia elata

Gentiana macrophylla

Hordeum vulgare

Houttuynia cordata

Ligusticum chuaxiong

Lindera strychnofolia

Lithospermum crythrorhizon

Lonicera japonica

Magnolia fargesii

Morus alba

Notopterygium incisium

Perilla frutescens

Phyllostachys nigra

Pinellia ternata

Plantago asiatica

Polygala tenufolia

Pheum palmatum

Scrophularia ningpoensis

Sinomenium acutum

Sophora augustifolia

Sophora subprostrata

Trachycarpus fortunei

Trichosanthes kirilowii

Trigonella foenum-graecum

Vitex rotundifolia

Xanthium strumarium

Zingiberis officinale

This line of research has reached the point where medicinal herbs can be classification according to the type of interferon induced. Thus :


Astractylodes ovata

Codonopsis radix

Dioscorea batatas

Ganoderma lucidum

Indigo pulverata

Lentinus edode

Polyporus umbellatus

Poria cocos

Interferon : produced in fibroblasts

Astragalus membranaceus Agkistrodon halys Panax ginseng

Interferon : produced in white blood cells

Astragalus membranaceus

Camptotheca acuminata

Coptis chinensis

Cucumis melo

Cuscuta chinensis

Dioscorea batatas

Ganoderma lucidum

Glycyrrhiza uralensis

Lonicera japonica

Lycium chinensis

Morinda officinalis

Paeonia lactiflora

Panax ginseng

Polygonatum officinalis

Polygonum multiflorum

Rehmannia glutinosa

Schizandra chinensis

Scutellaria baicanlensis

Taraxacum mongolicum

Viola yedoensis

It may be that such effects underlie the toning and normalizing effects of many herbs, especially those used for immune system related problems. They may not contain the kinds of dramatic active constituents that areso attractive to the pharmacologist, but produce profound results because of some interaction with the bodies innate processes of immunity and homeostasis.

Applying The Model

If the model developed throughout the course is applied here, clear guidelines become apparent.

  • Actions. There is no such action as `anti-cancer’. The process in general would indicate the relevance of alteratives, lymphatics and tonics. Other actions would be indicated by the symptom picture and issues unique to the kind of tumor involved. Systemic support will suggest other important actions.
  • System Tonics. Tonic support for the sight of the tumoris essential, also to address other factors that arise from a review of the patients medical and family histories.
  • Systemic support. This involves to approach to immune system support discussed above, with emphasis on deep immune stimulation, eliminative support and stress management.
  • Specific Remedies. Many plants around the world have a reputation as being `anticancer’ herbs. Unfortunately they don’t work as claimed! They are largely alterative, lymphatic, hepatic or diuretic remedies, and have much to contribute to the holistic approach suggested here. They don’t replace such an approach. Common examples from Europe and North America are :
Arctium lappa Calendula officinalis Galium aparine Iris versicolor Larrea divaricata Phytolacca decandra Rumex crispus Stillingia sylvatica Thuja occidentalis Trifolium pratenseViola odorata Viscum album


Why are there no prescriptions suggested or treatment protocols given in this section on cancer? Two reasons can be given, one theoretical and one personal. If there is any clear conclusion from this theoretical discussion it is that each individual must be treated as just that – a unique individual – not a sight for a tumor. As the approach proposes the avoidance of cytotoxic remedies, factors to address will be fundamentally the same as those for immune support in general, with possibly a greater emphasis on alteratives and lymphatics. The main reason is a personal one. My clinical experience with treating cancer is limited, and so have concluded that all I can ethically write is the outline and review of theory presented here. I do not want to claim or imply expertise that I do not possess. The herbal literature is replete with treatments and `cures’ that have no basis in reality. Maybe they sounded like a good idea to the writer at the time, but, of course, that is not good enough. Throughout this course I have endeavored to marry theory with clinical experience. Application of the model, and identifying any resulting patterns of relationship between plant and pathology, has been emphasized in an attempt to empower the student as they face the reality of clinical practice. In practice, however, the theory is often secondary to reality. The suggested prescriptions come from personal observation of many herbally treated cases. Any conclusions or ideas presented come from an interpretation of such observations, of the healing process in the people who have honored me by allowing me to work with them. Where I have no solid foundation in practice, I have referred to colleagues that do. In this case it was not appropriate.

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Written by David L. Hoffmann BSc Hons MNIMH

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