If you are about to start chemotherapy for cancer and have been paying attention to the world around, there is a good chance that you may be wondering, “since I’ll be starting chemo for my cancer, can I take some herbs and natural products to keep my immunity strong?”  You may also be considering whether to take herbs and natural products instead of chemotherapy.

Embarking on cancer treatment can be frightening and one may feel helpless at times. Having something one can do personally, might be very empowering. There is no question that continuing a healthy lifestyle with a good diet and exercise as able, can help keep you healthy and improve your chances of completing your treatment(s) with fewer complications. Adding supplements and herbal products is a slightly different issue since those are compounds that are not typically found in the body, or products natural to the body in possibly higher concentrations.

I will quickly acknowledge that I do not have training in herbs and natural products for cancer treatment.  I am not able to say if they do, or do not work, since I do not know the data.  In deciding whether to use such agents alone for cancer treatment, on in combination with conventional chemotherapy, I do believe that there are few issues to keep in mind:

What is the data? Conventional cancer treatments are recommended by your oncologist based on research data showing they are effective in both the short- and long-term. Such treatments also have an acceptable safety profile, meaning that the side effects are largely known and that benefits outweigh risks. Before deciding to utilize a natural product, it is helpful to review the supporting data with your physician. Also make sure to discuss possible side effects. This will enable you to make an informed decision regarding whether taking such a treatment is likely to help you.

It is best not to choose treatments based on anecdotal evidence over treatments based on a large body of data. An individual cancer cases may have a different outcome with particular treatments simply because of its natural history. A cancer can be naturally indolent in behavior and so may appear to have a great outcome with a particular treatment. Another cancer may be naturally aggressive and a patient may have a more difficult course regardless of what treatment is given. In order to get an accurate signal regarding whether a medication actually works well for a given problem, one needs a large number of patients with similar features in a similar situation to make a helpful comparison between treatments. This is the basis for the randomized controlled trial design that is required for approval of most conventional cancer medications. Admittedly, trials are not always available for all cancer types, especially rare ones, but whenever available, it is best to go with better-studied treatments.

The therapeutic window. Remember that many chemotherapy drugs come from plants (some examples are taxol and vincristine). Plants do contain very powerful compounds, a testament to the long history of healing with such products. Consider that you may take penicillin for a strep throat. You may need x levels to treat strep, and 5x levels to have a serious side effect from penicillin. With chemotherapy, very often the level needed to cause a serious side effect (5x level) is not very different from the level needed to treat the cancer (x level), meaning that there is much less wiggle room, described in medical terms as a narrow therapeutic window. If there is any tendency of a natural/herbal product to increase levels of a chemotherapy drug in your body, you may be at higher risk of a potentially serious side effect from the combination.