Herbal remedies have been used throughout history and in many traditional medicine systems. Herbal medicines are produced from various parts of plants containing active ingredients that can cause chemical changes in the body.
Herbal preparations can be consumed or applied to the skin to treat disease and promote health. Therapies using herbs can also be called botanical medicine.
Benefits: Many scientific studies have examined the effects of various herbs for people with cancer. Some remedies have been proven to reduce side effects from cancer treatment.
While many remedies don’t have scientific backing, historical usage suggests they may help with skin conditions and energy levels in people who have cancer.
Side effects: Some herbs may cause unwanted side effects and interact with conventional cancer treatment. For more information on the effects of specific herbs and botanicals, visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre website.
Download our Undersatnding Complementary Therapies booklet (PDF 1MB).
There is no reliable scientific evidence that herbal remedies alone can cure or treat cancer. However, some plant extracts have been found to have anti-cancer effects and have been turned into chemotherapy drugs. These include vincristine from the periwinkle plant, and taxanes from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.
Many pharmacies and health food stores sell herbal preparations. Ask your complementary therapist or pharmacist if these are of high quality and meet Australian standards.
What it is: Western herbal medicines are usually made from herbs grown in Europe and North America, but some come from Asia.
Why use it: Herbal preparations are often used to help with the side effects of conventional cancer treatments, such as lowering fatigue and improving wellbeing. Evidence shows they should be used in addition to conventional therapies, rather than as an alternative.
What to expect: After taking a case history, the practitioner puts together a holistic picture of your health. They will look for underlying reasons for your ill health or the symptoms you have, and dispense a remedy addressing the causes and symptoms of your illness.
They may give you a pre-made herbal formula or make up a blend of herbs specifically for your needs. Herbal medicines can be prepared as liquid extracts that are taken with water or as a tea (infusion). They can also be prepared as creams or tablets.
Evidence: There is a wide body of research into the effectiveness and safety of many herbs, and some studies show promising results. Speak to your doctor and herbal medicine practitioner about the potential side effects of any herbal preparations.
What it is: Chinese herbs are a key part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). See the 'Complementary therapies explained' section for more information on TCM, energy meridians and qi.
Why use it: Herbs are given to unblock energy meridians, bring harmony between Yin and Yang, and restore organ function.
What to expect: The practitioner will take a case history and may do a tongue and pulse analysis to assess how your body is out of balance. They will choose a combination of herbs and foods that will help bring your body back into balance. Chinese herbalists select a combination of herbs to make their own formula, or they can dispense prepackaged herbal medicines. Herbs may be prescribed as tablets or as a blend of herbs that you make into a tea.
Evidence: As with Western herbal medicine, many Chinese herbs have been scientifically evaluated for use in the general population, with some positive results. Research has suggested that some Chinese herbs are worth exploring further, but there is no strong evidence that they stop cancer growing, spreading or recurring. Talk to your doctor, pharmacist and complementary medicine practitioner if you are thinking about using herbal preparations.
'I don’t know whether it was because I felt empowered or whether it was the remedies from my herbalist, but compared to other people I knew having the same type of conventional treatment, I felt I was faring pretty well.'
— Esther, breast cancer survivor
Many people believe herbs are safe simply because they're natural. This is not true. Taking the wrong dose, the wrong combination or using the wrong part of the plant can sometimes cause serious side effects or toxicity. Herbs can also cause harmful interactions when used with chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy. Ask your treatment team which herbs and supplements are suitable to take during cancer treatment.
This popular herb for mild to moderate depression has been shown to stop some chemotherapy drugs and other medications from working properly. It may also increase skin reactions to radiotherapy. If you are feeling depressed, ask your doctor about other treatments.
Herbalists often prescribe this to menopausal women who are experiencing hot flushes. While clinical trials show that black cohosh is relatively safe, it should not be used by people with liver damage. There is not enough scientific evidence to support the use of black cohosh in people with cancer.
Studies have shown that these may have a blood-thinning effect, which can cause bleeding. This could be harmful in people with low platelet levels (e.g. from chemotherapy) or who are having surgery.
This has been to shown to stop the cancer bortezomib (Velcade®) from working properly.
Keep your complementary therapists and other health professionals informed about any herbal remedies you use before, during or after cancer treatment. Knowing all this information will help them give you the best possible care.
Many people with cancer who want to try complementary therapies decide to make nutritional changes. Some people want to alter their diet to help their body cope with the effects of cancer and its treatments, and to give themselves the best chance of recovery.
Many therapies incorporate general dietary advice, while some have their own specific approaches to diet. Most doctors, cancer nurses and dietitians recommend eating a balanced diet. However, for some people undergoing cancer treatment, this is not always possible.
An accredited practising dietitian can work with you to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs, give you tailored advice on your nutrition and coping with any eating problems you may experience, and assist in managing side effects. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for free information on eating well.
Good nutrition before, during and after treatment can help you to cope better with side effects, increase energy and maintain wellbeing. Vegetables and fruit contain not only vitamins and minerals, but also phytochemicals – natural substances such as antioxidants that may destroy cancer-causing agents (carcinogens).
Cancer Council recommends people with cancer follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines of two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables daily. Fruit and vegetables are best eaten fresh and whole rather than as a supplement or juice. Consuming a variety of both cooked and raw vegetables is recommended.
Some people with cancer choose Gerson therapy as an alternative treatment. Gerson therapy involves a special diet, including drinking fresh juice several times a day, taking supplements, and having coffee enemas. There is no scientific evidence that Gerson therapy is an effective treatment for cancer, and evidence shows that coffee enemas can be dangerous if used excessively.
What it is: This is a broad field of health care and provides a particular focus on the foods you eat and how they affect your health and wellbeing. This approach generally promotes the use of whole foods, organic foods and certain food types.
Why use it: For your body to function efficiently, you need to eat a balanced diet of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. You also need vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients found in fresh food. If you are deficient in certain nutrients, your body cannot function at its best and you may experience worse side effects from cancer treatment, develop new symptoms, or take longer to recover.
What to expect: A naturopathic nutritionist develops a treatment plan that is focused on creating diets from nutrient-rich food. You will be encouraged to avoid or minimise consumption of artificial flavours and chemicals. You may also be prescribed specific supplements.
Evidence: There is clinical evidence to show that eating a healthy, balanced diet can reduce people’s cancer risk, and can help people recover from cancer treatment.
'During treatment I had terrible digestive problems and urinary tract infections. My naturopath prescribed a range of soothing herbs and I drank cranberry juice and aloe vera juice. I also cut out all fried and processed foods. Within a few weeks the problems had cleared up.'
— Caroline, breast cancer survivor
The term nutritionist refers to both qualified nutrition scientists and naturopathic nutritionists. Some dietitians also call themselves nutritionists.
Nutritionists working in the natural health industry should have at least a diploma of nutrition, or equivalent, from a university or naturopathic college. Those working within a naturopathic framework are usually employed in private practice or in a holistic medical or complementary therapies centre. Practitioners will approach dietary issues differently according to their level of training and qualifications.
To become accredited, dietitians need university qualifications in science, nutrition and dietetics. Using scientific evidence, they modify people’s diets to help treat disease symptoms and to get the most out of food without the use of supplements. They often work within a conventional medical framework in hospitals, aged care facilities and medical practices.
For cancer patients, a dietitian works out specialised diets, helps with weight issues, and makes sure you are adequately nourished if you have eating difficulties. You may be given supplements if you are unable to meet your nutritional requirements through diet alone.
You might see a dietitian when you go to hospital, or privately after your treatment. If your GP refers you to a dietitian as part of a Chronic Disease Management Plan, you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate.
Homoeopathic remedies and flower essence remedies are not the same, but they are both diluted substances that contain no measurable amount of the original ingredient.
Scientists are unsure how homoeopathic and flower remedies affect the body. However, because the preparations are usually highly diluted, they do not appear to interact with drugs and are generally considered safe to use with conventional treatments.
Benefits: A system of health care based on the idea that ‘like cures like’. You are given a substance that causes similar symptoms in a healthy body to the symptoms you are experiencing. This is said to stimulate energy in the body that relieves the symptoms of ill health. Homoeopathic remedies are made from plant, mineral and animal substances that are diluted in water.
Side effects: Homoeopathic and flower remedies tend not to cause side effects because they are extremely diluted. However, if you feel you have experienced a reaction, you should stop taking the remedy and contact your practitioner or doctor for advice.
What it is: It's based on the idea that ‘like cures like'. That is, you're given a substance that causes similar symptoms in a healthy body as the symptoms you're experiencing. This is said to stimulate energy in the body that relieves the symptoms of ill health. Homoeopathic remedies are made from plant, mineral and animal substances. They're diluted in water and this is used to make the remedy.
Why use it: Homoeopathy is a gentle way to restore vitality and reduce emotional imbalances in the body.
What to expect: A homoeopath takes a case history that considers not only your medical history, but also the kind of person you are and how you respond physically and emotionally to your symptoms. A remedy is chosen and prescribed as liquid drops or tablets, which are taken throughout the day. You may also be given a cream for your skin, if appropriate.
Evidence: Anecdotal evidence shows that homoeopathy may help improve the physical and emotional wellbeing of people with cancer. However, scientific studies have shown mixed results. Some suggest that homoeopathy may help ease menopausal symptoms of women with breast cancer. These studies were
relatively small though, and of low quality, so the results can’t be relied on.
See the 'Key questions' section for regulatory information on medicines, including flower remedies and homoeopathy.
What they are: Also known as flower essences, these are highly diluted extracts from the flowers of wild plants. There are many types of flower remedies from around the world. The most well known in Australia are the Original Bach Flower Remedies, developed in the 1930s in England, and Australian Bush Flower Essences®, developed in Australia in the 1980s.
Why use them: Flower remedies are used to balance the mind, body and spirit and help you cope with emotional problems, which can sometimes contribute to poor health.
What to expect: Much like a counselling session, the therapist will ask questions and listen to you talk about yourself, the problems you are experiencing and how you feel about or approach certain situations. This enables the therapist to prepare a remedy – usually a blend of essences – tailored specifically for you, which is taken in water several times a day.
Evidence: Scientific evidence doesn't support the use of flower remedies for treating diseases. However, anecdotal evidence suggests they're helpful for reducing fear, anxiety or depression.
'After surgery I was so fearful that the cancer would return. My naturopath gave me Bach flower remedies for fear, shock and exhaustion. These helped me relax and I became more realistic about my situation.' — Louise, bowel cancer survivor