Traditional Chinese Medicine Approaches to Cancer

A Review of Complementary Cancer Therapies

An article by Henry McGrath Academic Director and Acupuncture Course Director of the College of Naturopathic Medicine

Introduction

Chinese medicine has recognised the existence of cancer (liu) since around 1600 BC. Detailed descriptions of various types of cancer were recorded from around 200 BC. Since that time, various medical strategies have been evolved to manage cancer, including surgical operations, herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, exercises and dietary therapy. 

In modern Chinese hospitals, cancer patients are offered treatments such as herbal medicine and acupuncture, alongside radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.  This integrated approach means that, as well as attacking the cancer directly, the patient’s overall health and vitality are largely maintained. Attention is given to ensuring that the digestive system, liver function, kidney function, immune function and emotional state are maintained at optimum levels, in order to strengthen the person in their fight against cancer. Often these systems are weakened by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, so it is the task of the traditional Chinese medicine therapist to deal with, and even pre-empt, the side effects of these interventions. The deeper reasons why the cancer developed are also explored, and an attempt is made to address these ’causes’ or issues, in order to try and minimise the risk of recurrence.

Chinese medicine views the human person differently from orthodox western medicine. Disease is always seen as part of an imbalance of the whole person, not just an isolated event. Cancer can not simply be cut out, allowing the person just to carry on exactly as before. Disease is seen in the context of the person’s relationships with the wider world: other people, food, the home, the workplace, the environment. Cancer must be seen in the context of the wider problems which western civilisation is encountering, whether ecological, spiritual or psychological.

In this article we shall explore a little of what Chinese medicine has to offer those with cancer.

The Chinese understanding of cancer

In order to understand the Chinese approach, we need to know about qi. This word can be translated as vital force or energy. If one has strong qi, one is healthy but if one’s qi is weak, one gets ill. One of the main tasks of the Chinese medicine therapist is to strengthen the qi. Underlying most cancers is a weakness of qi.

Modern PET scanning technology reveals that molecules are arranged in crystaline networks in living organisms and that this network forms a communication system. Information flows along this communication system via sub-atomic particles (positrons), and it turns out that this system broadly corresponds to the traditional Chinese qi network. (1)

When the qi is weak, it leads to blood stagnation. This can correspond to what western doctors call sticky blood, or to various types of circulatory problems. In this situation, nutrients do not get into the body cells, and toxins are not released properly. This causes the cells to become weakened and toxins to accumulate. This can eventually contribute to the development of cancer.

Prolonged emotional problems, such as stress, anxiety, anger, grief and depression can also cause the qi to become weakened, thus contributing to the development of some cancers.

Another problem is poor diet. Research has shown that some foods promote cancer and others help prevent it. In terms of Chinese medicine, when we take in a lot of poor quality food, it cannot be digested properly and it breaks down into what Chinese medicine calls phlegm. This can correspond, for example, to high cholesterol or other fatty deposits. This blocks the proper flow of nutrients into and the release of toxins out of the cells. This can contribute to the development of cancer. In the fight against cancer, dietary changes are crucial.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture in the ear

Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into key points on the skin. It does not generally hurt if done properly. Acupuncture is very effective at restoring the proper flow of qi. Acupuncture offers many benefits to those with cancer and we have space to mention only a few here. Click here to read more.

I often find that acupuncture is effective at reducing pain, which can be caused by the cancer or by medical interventions. Best results are usually obtained using electro acupuncture, where small electrodes are placed on the acupuncture needles and a tiny current passed through the area of pain. At certain electrical frequencies the body releases chemicals called endorphins, which help to reduce pain and to promote the healing of damaged body tissue. Some studies have shown that a frequency of 2Hz has a mild anti tumour effect.

Chemotherapy can kill the body’s immune cells and sometimes the treatment has to be stopped because this can reach dangerous levels. Some studies have shown that acupuncture can help maintain immune function and I have treated many people successfully in this regard, allowing them to complete a course of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy commonly induces nausea, but this is usually greatly improved by acupuncture.

Radiotherapy to the neck can destroy all or part of the salivary gland, causing severe dryness of the mouth (a condition known as xerostomia). I have treated many people successfully for this condition, using an acupuncture protocol developed by the US Navy. Several hospitals in the South West of England now routinely use this protocol, and report that around 80 per cent of patients have some improvement to the condition.

Herbal medicine

In Chinese hospitals herbal medicine is routinely given alongside chemotherapy in order to enhance its effectiveness and to maintain liver, kidney and immune function. Several US studies have suggested that the herb ’astragalus’ may  increase the life expectancy of those receiving platinum based chemotherapy(2). The herb helps boost the production of certain white blood cells, thus boosting immunity. It also helps identify the rogue cells to be attacked. It is crucial to maintain a strong immune system in the fight against cancer, There are many types of white cells some of which are called ’natural killer cells’. These actually bore holes in and kill cancer cells. Rather than just relying on attacking the cancer directly, Chinese medicine always tries to help the body become stronger so it can fight the cancer itself.

Many herbs have been identified as possessing anti tumour activity, and some are being synthesised into new drugs to fight cancer. For example, a herb known as Poria has been shown to cause cancer cells to commit suicide (a process known as (apoptosis) (3). Unlike chemotherapy, these herbs (if prescribed by a properly qualified therapist) do not harm normal cells and can be taken long term to help prevent recurrence of cancer once it has been treated with conventional methods.

Most liver cancers arise in patients with liver cirrhosis, in whom its incidence is high. Japanese researchers conducted a trial of 260 patients with cirrhosis. Half of the patients were given a herbal formula and half were given a placebo.  After five years, the incidence of liver cancer was statistically less in the group taking the herbs, which also had higher survival rates.(4)  

Of course, the definition of ’herbs’ is wide and can include such items as medicinal mushrooms which have immune boosting, cancer cell killing and tumour restricting properties in clinical trials.  

The role of the spirit

Emotions have a profound effect on the flow of qi. While the emotions are part of a healthy, normal, life, they can get out of hand and become over dominant. For example, one can be consumed by anger, so that the rest of one’s personality is under-developed. Or, one could be consumed by grief, fear, or anxiety, unable to function normally. When emotions become over dominant, they can cause physical illness. In Chinese medicine, each emotion influences a certain organ. For example, anger damages the liver, grief harms the lungs, and worry harms the digestive system. Acupuncture can be very helpful in normalising emotional function. However, it works so much better if the person can bring their emotions under control. 

Where people are part of a religion, they can use the traditional methods of prayer, fasting and other means to develop the spirit. All the great religions have such practices if one looks hard enough. For example, forgiveness may be cultivated in order to overcome anger. Or prayerfulness may be cultivated in order to overcome fear. The cancer can even be seen as a tool to help one grow: many patients have told me that cancer has been a good thing for them, as it has helped their spirit to grow. Cancer has actually helped many people to find a deep level of healing, and for some this has become more important than whether they survive or not. For the Taoists who developed Chinese medicine, healing of the spirit was the highest goal.

For those of a non religious persuasion, counselling or other forms of therapy may be used to address emotional issues. I have found that those patients who address issues of the spirit usually do much better than those who do not.
 
Diet

Some foods feed cancer, and some foods help heal it. The distinctive aspect of the Chinese approach is that one’s ideal diet depends totally on one’s diagnosis.  For example, if a patient is liver blood deficient, they must consume foods to tonify the blood, such as dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and perhaps some animal products. On the other hand, a patient whose cancer is caused by phlegm will need to cut out animal products, reduce phlegm-forming foods such as dairy, wheat and fried foods and introduce more drying foods, such as barley and oats.  With Chinese dietary approach, there is no one size fits all: the diet is tailored for each individual person.

Conclusion

Chinese medicine understands cancer to be part of an imbalance of the whole person, and of the wider society we live in.  It offers many tried and tested means to help those with cancer fight the illness at the levels of both body and spirit.

NOTES

(1) See the work of physicist Mae Wan Huo, for example her book The Worm and the Rainbow
(2) Journal of Clinical Oncology, Vol 24, No 3 (January 20), 2006: pp. 419-430
(3) Oncology Reports, 2006 Mar;15(3):637-43
(4) Oka H et al, Cancer. 1995 Sep 1;76(5):743-9

About the Author 

Henry McGrath is the Academic Director and Acupuncture Course Director of the College of Naturopathic Medicine, which runs courses in acupuncture, nutrition, herbal medicine and homeopathy across the UK & Ireland. In his own practice he specialises in working with cancer using herbs and acupuncture, and is based in Bristol, where he lives with his wife and three children, still finding time to be the author of a number of books on Traditional Chinese Medicine. To contact Henry please go to www.henrymcgrath.com   For further information about studying with the College of Naturopathic Medicine, please call 01342 410 505 or visit www.naturopathy-uk.com.

A Review of Complementary Cancer Therapies
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