Herbs and Chemotherapy: Approach with Caution

by on December 7th, 2014
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If you or someone you love is about to begin chemotherapy, you may be looking for every possible way to enhance the effectiveness of cancer treatment. Herbs and chemotherapy may seem like a logical combination, but this strategy should be approached with caution.

Natural does not equal safe.

During a personal health crisis such as a cancer diagnosis, herbs may seem like a natural addition. Herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so it is easy to assume that these treatments are safe. You may have loved ones bringing you Essiac tea, Milk Thistle, high antioxidant supplements, St. John’s Wort for your mood, and other innocuous sounding plant materials. All of these were suggested to me by well meaning friends when I was receiving chemotherapy, and every one of these substances could have interfered with my successful cancer treatment. Plants can be powerful medicine! Many of the most potent cancer fighting drugs are extracted from plants.

Some herbs can compromise the effectiveness of your treatment.

Herbs have the potential to interact with chemotherapy drugs, either compounding their toxicity or causing other dangerous side effects. Some herbs can interfere with the ability of your liver to metabolize chemotherapy drugs, rendering them less effective. Chemotherapy alone can be hard on your liver, so adding certain herbs (comfrey, for example) can tax it further and result in liver damage. All of the herbs listed above have the potential to do harm when used in combination with certain chemotherapy regimens. Only a qualified herbalist and your oncologist can know exactly which herbs are safe to use in combination with your cancer treatment. Cancer patients take dangerous risks by self prescribing herbs, or allowing well meaning friends to do so. However, herbs are showing promise in some areas of cancer care, and what’s important is to make sure that the right herbal therapy is being used with the right treatment for the right cancer. The way to do this is to get expert advice from a qualified herbalist. Be sure to include your oncologist in any treatment decisions.

Take advantage of other safe complementary treatments.

When I went through treatment for Inflammatory Breast Cancer in 2007, I was helped by all of the following complementary therapies: acupuncture, massage, healing touch, guided imagery, laughter therapy (my comedy improvisation class), yoga, counseling, and art therapy. I used all of these in addition to my chemotherapy protocol. There are plenty of safe complementary therapies to use that will ease side effects, enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy, and support your body, mind and spirit during cancer treatment.


Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institute of Health

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