Chinese Herbs For Cancer


Laboratory studies suggest that Traditional Chinese Medicine increases the effectiveness of the conventional therapies without increasing toxicity. Traditional Chinese Medicine is able to support patients being treated with conventional Western medicine (chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery) through four approaches: reducing side effects of chemo and radiation, hormone effects, increasing immunity, prevention of cancer progression and control of cancer symptoms.

  1. Reducing side effects of chemo and radiation

Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs contain a variety of chemicals that might act to inhibit tumor cell divisions, increase the proportion of immune cells within the tumor, and increase the blood flow through the tumor. As a result, it would reduce the number of tumor cells and minimize many side effects. Some herbs protect normal tissues from radiotherapy, such as Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolium thanks to its antioxidative actions and immune enhancement.

  1. Hormone effects

Phytoestrogens that possess either estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity are found in some botanical supplements like Angelica sinensis, Glycyrrhiza glabra and the various ginsengs. These substances, which act as chemopreventive agents, are used to treat patients with hormone-responsive cancers like breast cancer, prostate cancer and so on.

Ginseng has an anti-proliferative activity. It helps improve the quality of life of patients with breast cancer, and prevents its recurrence, according to a study presented at the American Society of Clịnical Oncology meeting in 2007.

Soybean is proven to be effective as an anti-cancer factor in the laboratory. Some studies suggested that people with a high soy or tofu content in their diet may have a reduced risk of breast cancer.

  1. Increasing immunity

Herbs help enhance the immune system, for example “Fu Zheng” herbs, including ginseng, Ganoderma, Astragalus membranaceus, Angelica sinensis, Cordyceps sinensis, and Fructus Lycii. Some clinical studies have found that immune cells, which attack cancer cells, increase in our body after we take Fu Zheng herbs. In addition, polychacharide extracts, complexes from Chinese medicinal herbs, and mushrooms have a potential role in enhancing natural immunity, thereby improving survival.

  1. Prevention of cancer progression

In general, a number of chronic viral infections result in cancer. Other risk factors include poor diet, genetic predisposition and smoking. An inadequate response from the immune system to eradicate chronic viral infections and cancer cells is a common problem.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, appropriate nutrition is emphasized in cancer treatment. The usage of green tea and Panax ginseng was shown to reduce effectively the risk of cancer and prevent cancer recurrence. Similarly, isoflavones and phytoestrogens in soy beans appear to reduce the incidence of prostate cancer, as well as cut back on the risk of recurrence. A Traditional Chinese herb combination may reduce the risk of lung cancer in ex-smokers.

The compound containing Sophora tonkinensis, Polygonum bixstorta, Prunella vulgaris, Sonchus brachyotus, Dictamnus dasycarpus and Dioscorea bulbifera lowered the risk of esophageal cancer by 50%, according to some Chinese studies.

  1. Symptom control

At least five clinical trials have shown that Chinese herbal treatment can decrease the degree of myelo-suppression, reduce stomach side effects and increase appetite. Among them, Ginger root has been shown in many clinical studies to have an antiemetic activity, i.e. it helps alleviate nausea.

Besides that, Chinese herbal therapies such as Ginkgo biloba may mitigate cognitive dysfunction which is caused by receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy.


Many clinical studies have been done to show the role of TCM in radiochemotherapy. Li et al. reviewed the outcomes of 2,964 studies which treated 253,434 patients with different types of cancers such as lung, liver, stomach, breast, colorectal, oesophageal and nasopharyngeal cancers. Their findings revealed that herbal medicine was the most commonly used TCM therapy (90.32%). Outcomes of such therapy were:

  • Improvement in clinical symptoms in 1667 studies (56.24%).
  • Improvement in biomarkers of cancer severity in 1270 studies (42.85%)
  • Better quality of life in 1129 studies (38.08%)
  • Reduction in side effects of either chemotherapy or radiotherapy was reported in 1094 studies (36.91%)
  • Reduction in tumour size in 869 studies (29.32%).

In another analysis, McCulloch et al. reviewed 34 different clinical studies involving 2815 lung cancer patients. Twelve out of 34 studies reported a reduction in the risk of death at 12months while 30 studies showed higher tumour response following the use of TCM.

Li et al. also carried out a detailed analysis of 24 different clinical studies involving 2,103 patients with advanced lung cancers. They revealed that when TCM was added to chemotherapy, the tumour responded better; toxic side effects of chemotherapy reduced; there was improvement in performance status and the survival rate within the first one year also increased.

In a similar study, Zhong et al. analyzed 20 studies where colorectal cancers were treated with either chemotherapy with TCM or chemotherapy alone. They found a slower rate of disease progression, improved quality of life and an increase in 1-3 year survival rates in those treated with chemotherapy and TCM.

The study of Gan et al, also revealed a decrease in the incidence of low white blood cells in gastric cancer patients treated with TCM while on chemotherapy.


In conclusion, traditional Chinese medicine plays an important role in the supportive care of cancer patients. Although evidence for the utility of traditional Chinese medicine is promising, more specific clinical trials should be conducted for the purpose of evaluating the efficacy of integrating traditional Chinese medicine into Western cancer care.




  1. S.M. Sagar and R.K. Wong, MD. Chinese Medicine and Biomodulation in Cancer Patients – Part two. Current Oncology – Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 8 – 30.
  2. Li X, Yang G, Li X, et al. Traditional Chinese Medicine in Cancer Care: A Review of Controlled Clinical Studies Published in Chinese. El-Rifai W, ed. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(4):e60338. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060338. Accessed October 11, 2017.
  3. McCulloch M, See C, Shu XJ, et al. Astragalus-based Chinese herbs and platinum-based chemotherapy for advanced non-small-cell lung cancer: Meta-analysis of randomized trials. J Clin Oncol. 2006:24(3):419-430. doi:10.1200/jco.2005.03.6392. Accessed October 11, 2017.
  4. Li SG, Chen HY, Ou-Yang CS, et al. The Efficacy of Chinese Herbal Medicine as an Adjunctive Therapy for Advanced Non-small Cell Lung Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Minna JD, ed. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(2):e57604. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057604. Accessed October 11, 2017.
  5. Zhong LL, Chen HY, Cho WC, Meng XM, Tong Y. The efficacy of Chinese herbal medicine as an adjunctive therapy for colorectal cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2012;20:240–252. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2012.02.004. Accessed October 11, 2017.
  6. Gan T, Wu Z, Tian L, Wang Y. Chinese herbal medicines for induction of remission in advanced or late gastric cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(1) CD005096. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd005096.pub3. Accessed October 11, 2017.




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