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Rebuilding the body after cancer treatment

Reading time: 13 minutes

Chinese herbology started a long time ago. The first records of using plants to make healing elixirs are attributed to Emperor Shen Nung who, back around 3494 BC, tested hundreds of plants and herbs on himself to discover their healing properties. 

Since then, hundreds of effective formulas combining various herbs, flowers, seeds, weeds, roots and fungi have made their way into the standardized traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) pharmacopeia. Some of the most widely used foundational formulas have been in use for over 2,000 years.

Unlike Western herbalism, which tends to use a single plant remedy to treat a single symptom, such as using cat’s claw for arthritis or ginger root for an upset stomach, Chinese herbs are usually used in combinations. And the formulas are not aimed at only relieving symptoms, which is the Westernized approach to medicine. Instead, they are designed to treat the overall energetic balance of a bodily system, for example the endocrine system or metabolic system, by introducing a matching set of energetic properties from the combined plants that will help reestablish harmony and balance of that system in the body.

“There are really three phases in Chinese herbal medicine,” says TCM doctor Darin Bunch from Santa Barbara, California. “The first step is symptomatic care. Then comes corrective care, and then prophylactic care. Chinese medicine is very fluid. It moves with people’s symptoms, almost like it dances with them, constantly having this synergistic strengthening effect. It’s very gentle, and yet it has powerful effects in its gentleness.”

When Lalla Brutoco came to Bunch’s office in January 2022, she was extremely debilitated from surgery, radiation and chemotherapy following successful treatment for melanoma and breast cancer. She was suffering from acute fatigue and severe digestive disorders and wasn’t sleeping well. Bunch put her on three herbal formulas: CA Support, Cordyceps 3 and GI Tonic. “I asked her a couple days later, ‘How long did it take to feel any effect?’ and she said, ‘Almost immediately.’” Literally the next day she had strongly responded to the formulas. Her energy, her digestion and her fatigue all improved.”

Bunch says he’s not surprised. For years he worked as a Chinese herbalist for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, treating cancer patients in hospitals and outpatient clinics around the country. Working with thousands of patients using Chinese herbal formulas to mitigate the serious side-effects of radiation and chemotherapy, he got used to the success stories. He also treated thousands of patients in recovery, helping build their digestive and immune systems back up to healthy standards.

“A lot of people, if they hadn’t done any complementary or alternative medicine or integrative therapies during treatment, weren’t faring too well,” he says “Working with Chinese herbs during treatment and afterward made so much difference. Sometimes with stage 4 cancer patients, it was just about extending survival and having a good quality of life. But it always helped with the nausea and vomiting and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. And their blood counts improved.”

Cancer studies show that TCM treatment (which usually means using both herbal formulas and acupuncture) positively affects DNA methylation (a biological process in which DNA molecules are chemically modified to assure proper gene expression) and the modification of histones (structural proteins in DNA). Both DNA methylation and histones are negatively impacted by cancer. 

TCM therapy has also been shown to eliminate cancer stem cells and regulate the tumor microenvironment.1 It has been proven to enhance the positive effects of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy while decreasing the system-wide damage such therapies can cause, thus improving overall quality of life.2 

Some Chinese herbs are known to effectively target the immune system.3 During the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan, China, TCM treatment using herbs designed to restore balance to the immune system, combatting the viral infection indirectly, had more than a 90 percent rate of efficacy.4

Chinese herbal formulas can decrease the toxic effect of chemotherapy and prolong survival rates in patients with advanced lung cancer.5 Complementary use of Chinese herbal formulas also improved the survival rate of patients with pancreatic cancer.6 And a survey conducted in China found that Chinese herbs helped to control tumor growth and reduce tumor markers while reducing the rate of treatment side-effects.7 

Bunch says he is very encouraged with Lalla’s response to treatment so far. “Right now, we’re really in the very beginning stage,” he says. “For that, I need three to six months of steady treatment, and then we can essentially take a break if she wants to or continue on and stay the course. It all depends on how she’s feeling. Every individual is different. But overall, because she’s doing so well, I would say after a year she will only need to come see me for tune-ups.”  

Herbal booster

Lalla Brutoco of Santa Barbara, California, has never been in great health. Most of her life she’s been dealing with fungal and viral problems, gut issues and Candida. She’s also tested positive for the Epstein-Barr virus. 

As a result of her chronic issues, she’s spent much of her life researching and using different alternative health modalities. She had a few brief experiences with acupuncture but had no knowledge or experience with Chinese herbs. 

Then, four years ago, she was diagnosed with a cancerous melanoma. A year later, a PET scan revealed cancer in her left breast. Her diagnosis came back as HER2- and ER-positive, a more aggressive form of breast cancer. (HER2 is a protein that helps breast cancer cells grow quickly. Breast cancers that have estrogen receptors are called ER-positive.)

“I did have surgery,” she says. “but I didn’t want to do chemo or radiation, so I tried to stick with alternative treatments. But six months after I had the surgery, the cancer came back, which was very upsetting. So I had to consider conventional treatment at that point.” 

She had a mastectomy and started radiation and chemotherapy in October 2020, continuing with Western treatments until July 2021. Her last three tests since then show her system is completely clear of circulating tumor cells.

“It was brutal,” she says. “I don’t know what was worse, the chemo, the surgery or the radiation. Of course, my biggest concern was ‘Did they get all of it? Will it come back?’” 

Now, nine months out of conventional therapy, her other biggest concern is improving her general health and rehabilitating her body’s ravaged immune system. “My white blood cell count was always low even before the cancer.
I kept asking the doctors, ‘How do I boost my immune system now?’ No conventional doctor had a solution for me.” 

Fortunately, a friend who is also a cancer survivor suggested she try Chinese medicine. She found her way to Dr Darin Bunch who, along with acupuncture treatments, put her on three different Chinese herbal formulas from Evergreen Herbs: CA Support, GI Support and Cordyceps 3. 

“Learning about Chinese herbs rang all the bells,” she says. “Here was an approach that could work for cancer prevention, boost my immune system and work with the underlying viral problems I’ve always had going on.”

At this writing, after only three weeks of taking the herbs and being treated with acupuncture, she says she feels a “dramatic improvement” with her fatigue issues. 

“Most of my life I’ve felt depleted and lackluster,” she says. “Today I have more energy than I’ve ever had. My gut issues have reduced, and I’m sleeping a lot better. I guess you could also say I have more confidence. I feel like I’m fortified—like I’m doing something to protect and support myself. It gives me hope that I can maintain this remission. That my immune system will be boosted, and I won’t fall susceptible to cancer cells developing again.”

She was very excited to report that her most recent blood test since starting the herbs shows an increase in lymphocytes—immune system cells that include natural killer cells, T cells and B cells.

“It’s very encouraging,” she says. “I wish someone had told me about taking Chinese herbs during my oncology treatments. That would’ve made a huge difference,” she says. “But I’m just glad that I came around eventually to trying it.”

The odd diagnostic world of Chinese herbs

Before a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine can recommend an herbal formula, they first evaluate a patient by asking detailed questions about symptoms, emotions and other pertinent aspects of a person’s life. The next step is checking the patient’s pulses. Unlike Western medicine, which is aware of one pulse indicating heart rate, TCM recognizes 29 different pulses that can be “read” by applying fingertip pressure to the skin where the arteries travel in the wrist. 

Analyzing the various pulses gives an understanding of the current conditions of the body. Some of the pulses are described as a slippery pulse, a wiry pulse, a scattered pulse and many other descriptors such as floating, surging, thready, irregular, faint, replete and even soggy.

Then there is an examination of the tongue, which is a strong indicator of many relationships between energy channels and various organs of the body as well as reflecting a patient’s overall harmony or stress levels. 

Much of what is being assessed in a diagnostic session is the balance or lack of balance between opposite functions or principles in the body. In TCM there are eight major principles in operation that need to be assessed, and they come in four pairs. The overarching pair of energetic opposites that affects all the other principles are yin/yang. The other paired principles that yin and yang impact are: external/internal, heat/cold and deficiency/excess. 

The yin, or feminine, aspect shows up as interior, relating to conditions affecting the organs, bone marrow, qi (energy, also spelled chi) and blood. Yin also shows up as deficiencies in the body’s defense mechanisms and as cold (a deficiency of yang/heat). 

The yang, masculine aspect shows up as exterior, relating to the skin and flesh, the energy pathways called meridians and the hair. The yang relates to excesses weakening the body’s defense mechanisms and excess heat (a yin/cold deficiency).

“When we are evaluating the body, much of what we are evaluating are opposites such as hot or cold, wet or dry, and strong or weak, and the tongue and pulse give us information that helps us in those determinations,” says Chinese herbalist Cathy McNease. 

“One of the things we look at is what is in excess and what is deficient. Maybe the patient doesn’t have much energy. They may be pale, or their tongue may be very pale. They may be blood deficient or either yin or yang deficient. If yin deficient, they’re probably hot at night, or if they’re yang deficient they’re probably cold all the time. Both deficiencies are mitigated by different foods and herbs that build up what is deficient.”

Excesses are also checked. If there is qi (energy) stagnation and blood stagnation, it means there is a buildup or excess occurring and things aren’t moving. This could indicate many things, starting with poor general blood circulation. Or you might end up with severe headaches or menstrual cramps because the energy and blood in those areas are blocked up.

Another excess might be fluids in the body. An excess of fluid, known as an excess of damp (versus its opposite, dry), can result in symptoms like swollen hands, feet and ankles, extra fluid in the lungs, a runny nose or even the creation of fatty cysts. 

If there is too much damp, it turns into what Chinese medicine refers to as phlegm. “Once dampness becomes phlegm, it can become truly problematic,” says McNease. 

“Phlegm is obstructive. It contributes to cancer, and it contributes to a lot of obstructive blood disorders like stroke and pulmonary embolisms. It can even contribute to mental illness.” 

Not surprisingly, building the immune system and restoring general health after chemo, radiation and surgery is a matter of attending to numerous deficiencies in the body, which herbal formulas like CA Support and Cordyceps 3 are designed to do.

Primary herbs for building up the immune system after oncology treatments

Chinese herbal ingredients list the Chinese name first, the plant part used, then the Latin genus. Herba = the upper plant parts; Rhizoma = rootstalk; Radix = root, Caulis = bark; Semen = seed; Fructus = fruit)

CA Support

CA Support formula is specifically designed for cancer patients experiencing extreme weakness and deficiency during and after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Sometimes it is prescribed if the patient is too weak to undergo allopathic treatment. It’s also used for terminally ill patients in late stages to help with pain.

CA Support is understood to boost the production of white blood cells to stimulate the immune system. It also increases production of red blood cells and inhibits tumor growth and metastasis.

“This formula addresses the situation where everything is deficient—qi, blood, yin and yang,” says Chinese herbalist Cathy McNease. “It also has the ability to clear out any remaining toxicity from either the cancer or the cancer treatment that is in excess. For example, maybe there is toxicity remaining from radiation. Maybe there is general toxicity remaining as heat or phlegm present as stagnant blood. This is designed to address that.”

Ingredients

Bai Hua She She Cao (Herba Hedyotis) used for snake bites and to inhibit cancers

Bai Zhu (Rhizoma Atractylodis Macrocephalae) diuretic, eases stomach ailments and aids digestion

Ban Zhi Lian (Herba Scutellariae Barbatae) barbed skullcap, a member of the mint family, clears heat and removes toxicity

Chong Lou (Rhizoma Paridis) antitumor and anti-hemorrhage effect, clears heat and toxicity via the liver meridian

Dong Chong Xia Cao (Cordyceps) a fungus, dissolves phlegm and tonifies kidney yang

E Zhu (Rhizoma Curcumae) bitter, warm, acts on the liver and spleen meridians, moves blood and qi

Fu Ling (Poria) a mushroom, “the medicine of immortality,” tonifies the liver and kidneys, dispels fatigue

Huang Jing (Rhizoma Polygonati) sweet, slightly cold, enters via lungs, stomach and heart meridians, nourishes yin and clears heat

Huang Qi (Radix Astragali) sweet, warm, enters via the lung and spleen meridians, balances qi, dispels toxins, nourishes blood

Ji Xue Teng (Caulis Spatholobi) nourishes blood and qi

Xi Yang Shen (Radix Panacis Quinquefolii, dry root,  sweet, slightly bitter, cool, clears heat, replenishes qi and nourishes yin

Yi Yi Ren (Semen Coicis) pearl barley, slightly cold, enters via the spleen, stomach and lung meridians, stimulates spleen 

Dosage

Take three to four capsules three times daily on an empty stomach with warm water.

Cordyceps 3

Cordyceps is a fungus that lives on specific caterpillars in the high mountain regions of China. It is believed to go very deep into the kidneys, tonifying yin and yang. In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are in control of the bones, so it stimulates the production of blood cells. 

“Cordyceps 3 strengthens the body’s natural defenses and supports the immune system,” says TCM physician Dr Darin Bunch. “One of the intentions of this formula is clearing out any toxicity from the cancer treatment. It is also used to clear heat, a yang excess.”

Specific for assisting the compromised immune system, Cordyceps 3 addresses kidney disorders and metabolic disorders such as fatigue, clears excess lipids in the blood and lowers blood sugar. It mitigates sexual and reproductive disorders as well as problems with the respiratory system, and it also dissolves phlegm. 

Ingredients

Dong Chong Xia Cao (Cordyceps) dissolves phlegm and tonifies kidney yang

Huang Qi (Radix Astragali) sweet, warm, enters via the lung and spleen meridians, balances qi, dispels toxins, nourishes blood

Ren Shen (Radix et Rhizoma Ginseng) Oriental ginseng bolsters immune function, improves intestinal flora, lowers blood glucose and blood lipids and improves vascular tone

Dosage

Take three to four capsules three times daily on an empty stomach with warm water. 

In addition to Cordyceps 3, McNease recommends adding certain mushrooms to the diet as often as possible. “Two that are very easy to incorporate into soups and stir fries are maitake and shiitake mushrooms. They both have a pleasant flavor, and if you don’t eat them daily at least have them several times a week.”

Gi Tonic

Gi Tonic is designed for long-term use and tonifies spleen qi, mitigates excess fluid, dispels dampness and stagnation, stops diarrhea, promotes digestion and mitigates spleen qi deficiency. 

“It’s of vital importance that we get the digestive system strengthened after cancer treatments because of the connection between the immune system and the digestive system,” says McNease. “The sooner we get the digestive system going, the better it is for the big picture.”

Ingredients

Bai Zhu (Rhizoma Atractylodis Macrocephalae)diuretic, eases stomach issues and aids digestion

Bian Dou (Semen Lablab Album) white hyacinth bean, sweet, slightly warm, dispels damp, stimulates spleen, enters via stomach and spleen meridians 

Fu Ling (Poria) a mushroom, “the medicine of immortality,” tonifies the liver and kidneys, dispels fatigue 

Gan Cao (Radix et Rhizoma Glycyrrhizae) Chinese licorice,  clears heat, replenishes qi, eliminates toxins, aids in spleen and stomach function, expels phlegm, stops pain

Jie Geng (Radix Platycodonis) balloon flower root, bitter, pungent, enters via lung meridian, dispels phlegm 

Lian Zi (Semen Nelumbinis) lotus seed, sweet, astringent, enters via spleen, kidney and heart meridians, tonifies spleen and kidneys, nourishes heart, calming effect 

Ren Shen (Radix et Rhizoma Ginseng) Oriental ginseng bolsters immune function, improves intestinal flora, lower blood glucose and blood lipids, improves vascular tone

Sha Ren (Fructus Amomi)  ginger family, pungent, warm, enters via spleen, stomach and kidney meridians, moves qi, dispels dampness, dispels qi stagnation of spleen and stomach

Shan Yao (Rhizoma Dioscoreae) sweet, mitigates inflammation, dispels excess heat,  enters via spleen, lung and kidney meridians, tonifies qi, spleen, lungs and kidneys, nourishes yin

Yi Yi Ren (Semen Coicis) pearl barley, slightly cold, enters via spleen, stomach and lung meridians, stimulates spleen

Zhi Huang Qi (Radix Astragali Praeparata) stimulates the immune system, dispels dampness, promotes tissue repair in the intestines, antioxidant

Adult Dosage

Take two to four capsules three times daily on an empty stomach, one hour before or two hours after meals, with a glass of warm water for maximum effectiveness.

Using Chinese herbs during cancer treatments

Studies show that the use of traditional Chinese herbal formulas can enhance the effectiveness of both chemotherapy and radiation while diminishing the severe side-effects of nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, peripheral neuropathy and extreme fatigue resulting from depletion of the immune system. 

Studies also show that Chinese herbs can regulate both cancer-promoting and tumor-suppressing genes, as well as helping to balance the tumor microenvironment and get rid of cancer stem cells.1  

“There are a couple places prior to the mop-up stage where herbs can be phenomenally effective,” says Chinese herbalist Cathy McNease of Ojai, California. “This is a place where I sure wish oncologists would open their minds a little bit, because we can do so much good, especially when patients are having symptoms from the Western treatment. But if the oncologist doesn’t feel comfortable with herbs, acupuncture can help to get the nausea down after chemo treatments.”

McNease says Chinese herbs during treatments for breast cancer are particularly important. 

“Breast cancer patients are often on a three-week schedule with chemotherapy,” she says. “The first week they get the chemo they’re probably not doing herbs—maybe a little bit of ginger tea to calm the stomach down. But then the second and the third week, just before they’re going to get another treatment, that’s the time when they could use some of those building herbs to try to build the white and red blood cells and boost the bone marrow. 

“Because if their blood cell count, particularly their white blood cell count, is too low when they show up to get chemo treatment, they may not be able to have the treatment. And it’s really important to stay on schedule—particularly if it’s an aggressive cancer they’re dealing with. Herbs can be so helpful with building the blood up in between those treatments.”

Dr Darin Bunch agrees. “Time and again I’ve seen a much greater outcome using TCM through an oncology program. Patients get through the program better because they just plain feel better. And that is a happy outcome.”

 

Main Article

References

1 

Cancer Med, 2019; 8(5): 1958–75

2 

Am J Chin Med, 2020; 48(7): 1577–92

3 

Nat Chem Biol, 2012; 8(3): 311–7

4 

Phytomedicine, 2021; 80: 153337

5 

PLoS One, 2013; 8(2): e57604

6 

Integr Cancer Ther, 2018; 17(2): 411–22

7 

Chin J Integr Med, 2021; 27(7): 502–8

 

Using Chinese herbs during cancer treatments

References

1 

Cancer Med, 2019; 8(5): 1958–75

 

 

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