Having cancer is like no other experience we ever encounter, and it is a remarkably unique process despite having so many similarities. Based on personal experience, there are a number of herbs (including flower essences, and essential oils) that support a person going through the cancer experience, including chemotherapy.
The idea for this article came as I was struggling with my own cancer experience. In late 2009, just before my 43rd birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After fumbling through a bewildering maze of information and options, I chose surgery and chemotherapy, followed by a five year regimen of tamoxifen to prevent a recurrence. The entire odyssey was stressful and no matter how well I thought I was doing, there were times when the only thing to do was have a good cry. Having cancer didn’t hurt, but surgery was taxing, and chemotherapy completely redefined my idea of what constitutes healthy. I am not a doctor, nor a medical professional, but perhaps what I learned along my journey will be of use to you on yours.
Cancer results from the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells which form tumors. Blood flow is redirected to the tumors and away from healthy cells nearby. Moreover, cancer cells can travel elsewhere in the body and produce additional tumors (so, breast cancer cells can be found in the liver or lungs), spreading the destruction. The tumors will eventually overwhelm the organ or tissue where it is located.
Many herbal therapies use the natural pharmaceutical properties to restore or support the body’s immune system. At this time there are no herbs proven to cure cancer. Moreover, natural does not always mean safe and everything you do, including ‘just’ taking vitamins needs to be with the knowledge and under the supervision of your health care provider. If there is a common agreement on a dosage, I’ve provided it, otherwise, consult with your herbalist or naturopath as to the best dosage for your situation.
Support for the body in preparation for surgery is a wise idea, and ideally is started three or four weeks prior to the surgery date. If you don’t have that kind of time, start as soon as you can, any support is better than none. Eat a nutritious diet, low in fat and high in protein and vitamins. High-quality protein such as that found in fish, poultry, nuts, and seeds are crucial because protein is required for tissue healing.
Some of the most important surgery supplements are antioxidants: vitamins A and C, selenium, and zinc. These nutrients can help reduce tissue damage after surgery. Anthocyanidins, which are potent antioxidants in deep red and blue fruits are excellent to add to your diet. Immune-building herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) also help ready the system for surgery (5ml-20ml tincture). Tonic and strengthening herbs such as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus, 5ml-10ml), gentian (Gentiana lutea), and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus, 15ml) can help with stress, digestion, and immune function. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) will support wound healing because the herb is high in silica, which can help strengthen tissues. Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis) works as a tonic and is a natural, mild infection fighter. Herbs that can thin the blood, such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, 40-160mg), red clover (Trifolium pratense), and alfalfa (Medicago sativa) should not be taken before surgery.
Post-surgery, (decaffeinated) teas can be very helpful in reducing the side effects of anesthesia and pain-relieving drugs; they are also comforting in the absolutely unpleasant environment of the hospital. Teas that include ginger (Zingiber officinale, 250-1000mg) will help reduce nausea and that woozy feeling that lingers. Vitamin C promotes wound healing and 500-2000mg of bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple, can reduce postsurgical inflammation and may help with digestion.
If you want to help speed healing and minimize the appearance of scars, the two best essential oils to use are lavender and helichrysum. A simple recipe is to combine 1/4 teaspoon vitamin E oil, 3 teaspoons aloe vera gel or juice, and 3 drops of pure lavender or helichrysum essential oil. Blend well and apply several times a day. In my case, a friend sent me a jar of comfrey salve that was a miracle, minimizing the scars and speeding the healing. All of my surgeons were impressed with how quickly and well I healed.
Radiation is a common therapeutic complement to surgery, or it may be used alone to treat the cancer. Radiation is targeted to a specific tumor or group of cancer cells; it penetrates them and activates the process of programmed cell death. It damages cellular DNA in all cells, healthy and cancer. Side effects of radiation include anemia, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, hair loss, skin irritation or burns, and sterility.
Kelp (Laminaria) is very high in iodine which helps regulate the thyroid, helping it process out the radiation. Start taking kelp with the first diagnosis and keep going right through radiotherapy treatment and for months afterward. If using an extract, the dosage is 15 drops four doses per day in water. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a nervous system and a circulatory tonic and should be taken for the duration of the treatment. Infuse 1 tablespoon in 8oz hot water, covered, for 20 minutes. Sip 1 tsp as needed every 20 minutes. Spirulina (Arthrospira), a type of algae, contains the highest plant source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a fatty acid which strengthens immunity and inhibits excessive cell division. Spirulina can be added to juice or smoothies, or taken in capsule form. Ginger can help reduce stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. It is also a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and helps prevent ulcers from developing by protecting the lining of the stomach. It is best taken fresh, or as an herbal tea, but can also be added to food.
Chemotherapy (chemo) may be used before, during, or after radiation and surgery. Chemo involves giving the patient chemicals (orally or intravenously) that circulate throughout the body and are toxic to cells. Chemo halts cell reproduction and growth especially in rapidly dividing cells, and cancers cells are the most rapidly dividing in the body. There are more than forty different drugs used in chemo, and most patients will receive a mixture of several in an individualized cocktail. All of the filtering organs are negatively affected and need support. The most common side effects of chemo include: nausea, hair loss, mouth sores, constipation or diarrhea, fatigue, weakness, taste impairment, loss of appetite, low blood count, infection, neuropathy, ‘joint’ pain and difficulty sleeping.
Aloe vera contains a water-soluble compound called acemannan which is a potent immune stimulant and anti-tumor agent. Therapeutic dosing has not been established, but a guideline would be 30 ml, three times a day. Drinking 4 fl oz of aloe vera juice (on empty stomach) can be helpful in soothing the intestinal tract. Chronic use of aloe can lead to potassium deficiency, especially when used with licorice, thiazide diuretics, and steroids. Astralagus helps restore white blood cells, beneficial after chemotherapy, which tends to depress those counts to sub-par levels. Traditional Chinese medicine uses this herb for night sweats, fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness, and diarrhea, all of which are possible side effects of chemotherapy. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) supports the balance of the digestive system and the parasympathetic nervous system. It helps balance the metabolism to more quickly recover after shock and allows appetite and vitality to return more readily after each chemo session. Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) is a major liver tonic but NOT recommended if your cancer was hormone positive. This plant enhances liver detoxification and supports the growth of healthy liver cells. It contains a bioflavonoid known as silymarin, one constituent of which is silibinin. In liver disease, 400-1000mg is the recommended dosage. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) supports the digestive system in general. Rosehips offer support to the kidney, liver and adrenals in particular while being an antioxidant and a high source of iron and vitamin C. Parsley (Petroselinum hortense) offers powerful support for those whose vitality has been severely compromised. Chopped and mixed into a white sauce or eaten with a bit of fish or salad parsley is a useful source of iron, minerals, and vitamin C. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a metabolic tonic especially directed to the health and function of the pancreas. Ginger is another metabolic tonic, which enlivens the digestion and the metabolism in general and is helpful therefore in speeding the return to normal functioning after toxic shock. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) assists in the recovery from severe adrenal shock. The adrenal glands are depleted catastrophically when a toxic shock is administered to our systems without warning as in the case of all treatments administered directly into the blood stream. In a tincture, the dosage is 3-10ml. Eating less fat can help with diarrhea, and probiotics will help balance the intestines. Shark oil can counterbalance anemia when 1000mg is taken 3-6 times daily.
When I lost my hair, I kept my scalp healthy through weekly exfoliating with a washcloth and judicious use of moisturizer (the same stuff I use on my face, nothing fancy). When the hair began to re-grow (about six weeks after the last treatment) I began using SeaChi scalp treatment product. My hair grew back very quickly, again amazing everyone around me. Throughout the entire odyssey I used the essential oil product Sleep, A Bedtime Ritual to help me sleep.
Cancer’s odyssey brings with it overwhelming amounts of anger, anxiety, and fear, all beginning with those terrible words “You have cancer.” It is not confined to the patient, but encompasses everyone in his or her life; sometimes it can be much more difficult to watch your loved one struggle while you stand helplessly by, supportive, but impotent. For both of you, aromatherapy can be an excellent program. Scents like neroli, chamomile, and lavender are relaxing and antidepressant. You don’t need to do anything elaborate, I had a couple of handkerchiefs I put a few drops of oil on and carried with me, or tucked into my pillowcase at night. A more elegant solution is to purchase an aromatherapy necklace and extra scent pads. (Mine is a small pewter locket decorated with the Celtic spiral of life; it opens and small pads can be placed inside. As the locket warms from being against my skin, the scent is gently released.)
When you emerge from the cancer process, you are likely to feel run down and exhausted, perhaps even toxic. When you feel ready (and probably no sooner than three months post-chemo), consider doing a very gentle liver detox. A course of liver-supportive herbs such as milk thistle, burdock (Arctium lappa), and shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is a good way to go. Green and white tea offers phytochemicals which suppress signaling molecules need for cancer cell reproduction and block enzymes needed for tumor invasion; it also helps collect fat-soluble toxins into the bowels for elimination. Drinking four to eight cups of high-quality tea each day is the recommended dosage (although using dietary supplements will do just as well).
Many of us have experienced profound changes to our body, leading to strong feelings of unease and psychic distress. A product I found valuable in helping me re-integrate and re-map my body is Blue Morpho Body Oil.
There are a number of Bach Flower essences you may be drawn to work with during this time. Crab apple cleanses poisons, gentian, gorse and mimulus assist when you are grappling with doubt, hornbeam helps when you are feeling over-burdened, oak assists when fighting against over-whelming odds, olive eases suffering, rock rose rescues in cases where there is no hope, and star of Bethlehem is perfect for mitigating the stress of shock. I also found willow useful in accepting what I couldn’t change.
How you navigate your way through the cancer odyssey will be unique to you, your needs, your situation, and your support. I hope that these plants are your allies during the journey.
Products I Recommend:
- Blue Morpho Body Oil, from Kate’s Magik Essential Oil Blends (katesmagik.com), also available through Isabella Catalog (isabellacatalog.com)
- Sleep, A Bedtime Ritual, from Essence of Vali (essenceofvali.com), also available through Isabella Catalog
- SeaChi Leave On Moisturizing Treatment and Hair Growth Formula, from SeaChi Organics (seachi.com)
- Aromatherapy necklace. Several sources and styles. Mine is from Nature’s Alchemy through vitacost.com.
- Bach Flower Essences (bachflower.com)
Alschuler, Lise and Karolyn Gazella, The Definitive Guide to Cancer: An Integrative Approach to Prevention, Treatment, and Healing, 3rd edition. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA, 2010. Strongly recommended reading.
Balch, Phyllis A, CNC; Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 4th Edition; Avery; 2000.
Boston Women’s Collective, Our Bodies, Our Selves; Touchstone; 1996.
The Herb Companion, 2002-2011. http://wwwtheherbcompanion.com.
Leaf, Fern, BA, NE, NC; “Nutritional Support During Radiation and Chemotherapy Treatments;” http://www.nutrition-matters.com/Oncology_ Nutrition.pdf. Article includes specific list of chemotherapy drugs and nutritional guidelines.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov.