Many cancer patients, despairing of chemotherapy and other medical procedures, turn to herbal medicines. But according to new research at the Technion, those herbal remedies may actually exacerbate the cancers they are supposed to fight, at least when they are used in conjunction with medical care procedures.
Late-night radio talk shows, Sunday newspaper supplements, and innumerable websites tout the benefits of various herbal supplements as cancer fighters. Turmeric, for example, is being heavily promoted by many alternative care practitioners as an effective remedy for cancer. According to one popular site, “turmeric’s active ingredient is an extracted compound called curcumin. Studies have shown that curcumin helps prevent several forms of cancer including breast, lung, stomach, liver, and colon because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It stops the development of cancer by interfering with the cellular signaling aspects of the chronic disease.”
Not necessarily, according to a team led by Professor Eran Ben-Arye of the Technion. A study published by Ben-Arye shows that herbal remedies — such as turmeric — may increase the toxic effects of certain chemotherapies, while gingko biloba and green teas could increase the risks of bleeding in some cancer patients. Other herbs, including black cumin and turmeric, can alter the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
While not universal — the study focused on cancer patients in the Middle East — the conclusions are broad enough for patients in the US to take note, the team said. Of the herbal therapies studied, 29 of the 44 could pose one or more health risks to cancer patients, the study showed.
Different herbal medicines are popular in different parts of the world, and the study focused on medicines popular in the Middle East, taking into account the remedies used in 16 Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and others. “In the Middle East, herbs are commonly used as part of traditional medicine, based on the impressive affinity of the people here to the herbal heritage that has continuously prospered from the time of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” Ben-Arye said.
The findings were based on a survey conducted by Ben-Arye and his colleagues, who asked more than 300 cancer care providers in the countries about the kinds of herbal medicines their patients were using. They found that 57% of the providers took care of patients who used at least one herbal remedy. Women and Muslim providers were more likely to report patients who used the herbs.
Although many patients use the herbs without telling their physicians, in this study Ben-Arye and his team wanted to focus on cancer care providers who are aware of their patients’ herbal supplement use. In general, Middle Eastern cancer care providers have a skeptical view of these alternative medicines, Ben-Arye said. However, his studies show that the providers also support the idea of having a physician consultant on a patient’s cancer care team who can speak to “the effectiveness and safety of these herbal practices along with conventional cancer treatments,” he noted.
Patients felt similarly, Ben-Arye suggested. “In the majority of cases, patients seek to combine the best of the two worlds and do not perceive herbal medicine as a real alternative to modern oncology care.”
Patients most often turn to the herbs to enhance their quality of life and to cope better with the effects of their treatment, Ben-Arye added, rather than use them in an attempt to cure their cancers.
That might not be such a good idea, the study showed. It examined the condition of patients who used both medical and natural therapies, examining their overall health in relation to specific conditions associated with them as they interacted with chemotherapy and other medical treatments for cancer. Safety-related concerns were associated with 29 products, including herb-drug interactions with altered pharmacodynamics (15 herbs), direct toxic effects (18 herbs), and increased in-vitro response of cancer cells to chemotherapy (7 herbs), the team concluded.
The researchers hope the new study will guide cancer care providers as they offer “open, non-judgmental” advice about the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines. “The majority of patients would hope to share their experience and questions of herbal options with their health care provider ‘at home,’ within the oncology department, rather than ‘outside’ where non-professionals and sometimes charlatans suggest miraculous potions,” Ben-Arye said.