The main difference between chemotherapy and vitamin or herbal supplements is that most chemotherapy is designed to kill cancer cells directly, while most supplements are designed to strengthen the immune system so that it can remove cancer cells on its own, as it was designed to do. In general, radical remission survivors take supplements for one of three reasons.
First, they may want to boost their immune system and overall health (i.e., add something to the body that it is lacking, such as vitamin D or melatonin). Second, they may wish to detoxify their body of something that should not be there, such as parasites, heavy metals, harmful bacteria or toxins.
Finally, they may take supplements to help them digest their food better, such as prebiotics, probiotics or digestive enzymes.
Integrative oncology physician Keith Block, MD, believes strongly in the importance of an anticancer diet complemented by targeted nutraceuticals (i.e., supplements). His supplement recommendations are based on the results of a patient's microenvironment, terrain and molecular laboratory testing, the specific type of cancer they're facing, and their conventional treatment regimens, which he routinely gives using time-sensitive protocols.
These supplement recommendations are then modified as the patient progresses through treatment. Dr Block favors supplements based on food concentrates and whole-herb extracts. For example, his interventions include a highly concentrated formula of green tea1 with reishi and chaga mushrooms and an organic green drink supplement, both made in the US and laboratory tested for purity.
He uses a multivitamin-mineral supplement that—unlike what is readily available on store shelves and online—he has tailored specifically to cancer patients. This customization includes omitting iron and copper, both of which can fuel oxidative stress and angiogenesis, and adding cancer-fighting food and botanical extracts.
More and more cancer patients are seeking out information about herbs and supplements, asking their doctors about which ones to take, and seeking an integrative provider if needed.
One recent study found that among breast and gynecological cancer patients, one-third of the women had worked with their medical teams to add either herbal supplements, homeopathy or vitamins to their healing regimens.2
Clinical studies of homeopathic remedies used in combination with conventional medical treatment have shown that homeopathic remedies can improve patients' quality of life, reduce symptom burden and improve survival time in cancer patients.3 For example, homeopathy has been shown to reduce the severity of the difficult side-effects of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, including nausea, fatigue and foggy-headedness.4
Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna found that patients suffering from advanced stages of cancer who used homeopathy enjoyed significantly longer survival time compared to a control group.5
In one impressive study conducted in India, 15 patients with various types of advanced brain cancer were treated with a homeopathic dilution of Ruta 6 (isolated from the plant Ruta graveolens) as well as calcium phosphate. They drank two drops of Ruta 6 in a teaspoon of water and took a small dose of calcium phosphate twice a day.
All the patients gradually improved as they were regularly tracked by CT scans and clinical exams. Amazingly, eight of the nine patients with glioma showed a complete regression of their tumors, while the ninth experienced partial regression.
One of three patients with meningioma showed complete regression, while the other two had a prolonged period of tumor stability. One patient with neurinoma achieved tumor stability, while one patient with craniopharyngioma and another with a malignant pituitary tumor both showed complete regression.
The time it took from the first homeopathic treatment to complete regression and/or a stable state ranged from three months to seven years.
Meanwhile, across the globe, researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center who were working in collaboration with the Indian team were investigating the effects of Ruta 6 and calcium phosphate on brain cancer cells in vitro (i.e., in petri dishes). They discovered that the homeopathic treatment caused brain cancer cells to die by eroding their telomeres—the endcaps of chromosomes—while allowing healthy white blood cells to survive.6
This promising pilot study indicates that homeopathy may be a potential treatment option for cancer with minimal side-effects, and one which warrants further study, especially for brain cancer patients.
The science of herbs for cancer
There are many studies reporting the cancer-fighting effects of nutritional supplements.
Here are a few examples:
• Patients with multiple myeloma who were undergoing chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation were able to significantly strengthen their immune systems by taking the mushroom supplement AndoSan.1
• Prostate cancer patients who had high prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels (indicative of a prostate cancer recurrence) found that white button mushroom powder lowered PSA levels and increased other blood markers related to strengthening the immune system.2
• A probiotic kefir product was found to induce the death (apoptosis) of cancer cells.3
•Vitamin D supplementation has been shown to inhibit the growth of estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer.4
•Ginseng has been shown to significantly boost immune function in patients with non-small cell lung cancer.5
•Lycopene (found in tomatoes) helped to lower PSA in prostate cancer patients in just three weeks.6
The medical use of cannabis (marijuana) is one of the hottest topics in the cancer world right now. Proponents of medicinal marijuana claim it is a wonder drug that can be used for hundreds of conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, sleep disorders, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, epilepsy and cancer.7
They contend that cannabis is safe, easy for patients to use and relatively inexpensive compared to pharmaceutical drugs.8 In fact, no recorded cases of overdose deaths from cannabis have ever been found, even after extensive literature reviews.9
Opponents of medicinal cannabis argue that there are not yet enough randomized trials to confirm its benefits, harms or potency. They point out that cannabis impairs coordination and judgment, and that there is potential for dependence, addiction and abuse.10
Despite these objections, the fact that marijuana has proven invaluable in easing numerous symptoms—nausea, pain, motor dysfunction and gastrointestinal problems, to name a few—helps explain why so many states in the US have already legalized it for medicinal use.11
The cannabis plant contains more than 500 different biologically active compounds,12 including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is psychoactive and gets you "high," and cannabidiol (CBD), which does not produce the high that THC does.
Cannabis affects your body by stimulating the endocannabinoid system, a complex cell-signaling system found in your central nervous system, internal organs, connective tissues, glands and immune cells—in other words, nearly everywhere.7
In general, your endocannabinoid system helps your body eat, sleep, relax, forget and protect.13 A variety of processes occur when you ingest cannabis and your cannabinoid receptors are stimulated, including regulation of sleep, increased appetite and reductions in stress, pain, nausea and inflammation.14
While cannabis is perhaps best known for reducing the side-effects of chemotherapy, it is helpful to know that cannabis itself produces very few side-effects, and even those are mild. In a recent study, the World Health Organization reported that CBD is generally well-tolerated, with a good safety profile and no addictive effects.15
In a different study looking at the effects of medical cannabis over a 40-year period, the researchers found that less than 15 percent of all study participants had any side-effects at all, and the few side-effects reported included dizziness, vomiting and urinary tract infections. Notably, however, there were no significant differences between the side-effects reported by the people who received medical cannabis and those who received either a placebo or nothing at all.16
The use of cannabis in the palliative care of cancer patients is well established, with hundreds of clinical studies showing a significant improvement in treatment-related symptoms such as pain,17 nausea and being underweight.18
When it comes to nausea, cannabis is especially helpful. In a review of 23 randomized controlled trials, patients who received cannabis experienced significantly less nausea and vomiting than subjects who received a placebo.19
In addition to reducing the side-effects of chemotherapy, cannabis has been shown to improve how well it works.20 In one study, researchers found that THC and CBD significantly increased the effectiveness of common chemotherapies, including cytarabine, doxorubicin, cisplatin and others.21
Similarly, a recent randomized, placebo-controlled trial looked at the effects of cannabis on patients with recurrent glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a particularly aggressive brain tumor with a very poor prognosis.
These cancer patients took either chemotherapy plus THC and CBD, or chemotherapy plus placebo. After one year, 83 percent of the patients in the THC/CBD group were still alive, compared to only 53 percent of the patients in the placebo group.22
Recent research suggests that cannabis can do more for sick patients than just alleviate side-effects and boost the power of chemotherapy. For example, one study of HIV patients found that cannabis activates immune function and reduces systemic inflammation.23
Anything that can reduce inflammation and boost immune function can help your body heal. If cannabis can reduce inflammation and boost immune function in patients with HIV, it may have similar health-promoting benefits for cancer patients.
The most promising cannabis studies, in our opinion, are those that look at the direct anticancer properties of cannabis. Several studies have shown that cannabis has a strong effect on tumor reduction and cancer cell death (apoptosis), and can act as a direct antitumor agent.20
In mouse studies, CBD has been shown to inhibit the progression of many types of cancer, including glioblastoma, breast, lung, prostate and colon cancer.20 Other studies with mice have found that CBD inhibits breast tumor growth and reduces tumor size, which leads to significantly longer survival time.24
One study of mice showed that CBD could inhibit the growth of triple-negative breast tumors,18 while another found that THC slowed the growth of breast tumors by inducing apoptosis in cancer cells.25
Humans are different from mice, of course, so we will need to wait for human trials to be conducted before declaring cannabis an official anticancer supplement.
In the meantime, CBD appears to fall into the category of "can't hurt, will help with treatment-related side-effects, and might help inhibit tumor growth and/or kill cancer cells."
Natural supplements for cancer
Cancer survivors take three main categories of supplements to aid their recovery:
1. Digestive supplements
To help digest your food, including digestive enzymes and prebiotics/probiotics to assist the good bacteria in your gut.
2. Detoxification supplements
To help eliminate from your body anything that is slowing down healing, such as parasites, bacteria, viruses, fungi and heavy metals.
3. Immune boosters
To help bring vitamins and hormone levels within a normal range. These include supplements such as cannabis, mistletoe, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin D, fish oil, melatonin, mushrooms and trace minerals.
Remember to always consult a health professional before embarking on a supplement regimen to ensure you maximize your healing and avoid any negative interactions with your current medications or other supplements.
Another promising supplement gaining in popularity is the liquid extract from mistletoe berries, leaves and stems. Mistletoe has been used for decades in Europe and Asia, both as a first-line cancer treatment and an add-on therapy to help alleviate the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation. In fact, mistletoe extract is one of the supplements that European doctors prescribe most to cancer patients.26
Usually given by self-injection under the skin every two days, the benefits of mistletoe therapy include reducing tumor activity26 and increasing survival time, 27 all with fewer side-effects than conventional treatment alone, as well as improving patients' quality of life by increasing energy and reducing nausea.28
In a German clinical trial of the safety of mistletoe therapy, a group of bladder cancer patients received weekly injections of mistletoe for six weeks, instead of chemotherapy or surgery. Amazingly, more than half the patients who took mistletoe were in full remission after only 12 weeks.29
In addition to these highly encouraging results, the side-effects of the mistletoe were very mild, including a rash at the site of injection and a few low-grade fevers.
Another study looked at melanoma in mice to evaluate the effects of Korean mistletoe as a cancer treatment. Researchers found that the mice given mistletoe had a significant reduction in tumor size and a significantly higher survival rate compared to the control group of untreated mice.
In addition, the mistletoe extract induced both early- and late-stage apoptosis (i.e., cell death). This is crucial in cancer healing because one of the ways cancer cells malfunction is that they "forget to die" when they are supposed to and then accumulate into bulky tumors.30
In an exciting development, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is currently running the first clinical trial in the US to analyze the effects of mistletoe on cancer patients, its safety, appropriate dosing and any possible side-effects.
Not only is it the first step toward getting FDA approval for mistletoe as a first-line cancer treatment, but it also helps the therapy to be reimbursed by health insurance companies. As of this writing, the trial is still accepting new participants.
Get tested for toxins
When you find a qualified health professional to guide you in taking personalized supplements, you will want to do some testing with them first to see exactly which supplements your body needs.
Here is a partial list of conditions that many radical remission survivors get tested for before they start taking supplements:
• Heavy metals (via a blood or urine test, or hair analysis)
• Parasites (via a blood, stool and/or urine test)
• Leaky gut (via a blood, stool and/or urine test complemented by genetic testing)
• Overgrowth of Candida or other fungi (via a blood, stool and/or urine test)
• Bacterial and viral infections (via a blood, urine and/or stool test)
• Vitamin deficiencies (via a blood test complemented by genetic testing)
Bob's story: a healing plant
Mistletoe helped Bob Granata, a no-nonsense Midwesterner, heal from cancer of the appendix. After surgery, several rounds of chemo, and working with naturopathic doctors to make changes to his diet, begin taking supplements and taking steps to reduce his stress levels, Bob traveled to Kliniken Essen-Mitte, a health clinic in Germany, 15 months after his initial diagnosis.
There, he started taking subcutaneous shots of mistletoe into his abdomen. Mistletoe injections have been shown to "wake up" a patient's immune response.
Bob continued taking mistletoe injections every other day for nearly two years, from April 2014 until March 2016. Mistletoe is not yet FDA-approved, so it cannot currently be prescribed by US medical doctors, but it can be prescribed by naturopathic doctors, since it is considered a supplement.
Bob was able to work with his naturopathic clinic in Ann Arbor to receive his mistletoe supply.
Ivelisse's story: defying the odds
In 2008, Ivelisse was a happy wife and mother of four with a deep faith when she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She was 37 at the time, the exact same age her father had been when he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer.
Because Ivelisse was deeply affected by her father's two-year decline and ultimate death from the cancer when she was only 13, she and her sisters had vowed to be hypervigilant about preventing it.
For years, Ivelisse had received routine colonoscopies, eaten organically and exercised regularly. So she was understandably shocked when she was diagnosed with a rare, asymptomatic, yet highly aggressive form of metastatic colon cancer, despite doing everything she could to prevent it.
She agreed to have immediate surgery to remove 15 inches of her colon and 28 lymph nodes, the biopsies of which confirmed her cancer diagnosis. Five weeks later, she had a second surgery to remove 20 percent of her liver, because scans showed that the cancer had already spread there.
At this point, her surgeon recommended immediate and aggressive chemotherapy. However, Ivelisse pushed back because she felt that chemotherapy was "burning down the forest for one rotten tree." Besides, her intuition told her that chemotherapy would kill her because she was so chemically sensitive.
During this time, Ivelisse's husband had been on a search for complementary therapies. Ultimately, their searching (plus a little serendipity) led Ivelisse to find Peter Hinderberger, a homeopathic medical doctor working near Ivelisse in Baltimore, Maryland.
He had received his medical degree in Europe and was therefore trained in mistletoe therapy. After careful evaluation, and always keeping her four children in mind, Ivelisse felt she had everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying mistletoe.
For Ivelisse's cancer, her every-other-day mistletoe injections, along with other radical remission healing factors, helped to keep her cancer at bay without the use of chemotherapy.
In terms of her diet, she limited her consumption of meat and processed foods, eliminated all dairy, and kept eating the large amount of organic fruits and vegetables she already ate. Exercise came back into the picture as soon as she was strong enough after surgery, and staying alive for her family provided her with ample reasons for living.
She experienced a huge emotional release during a time of prayer her friends held for her, focused on staying positive about the future throughout her treatment, and empowered herself by building a team of both naturopathic and conventional doctors. Finally, Ivelisse continued to follow her intuition and deepened her already strong spirituality by surrendering her healing outcome to God.
Ivelisse's surgeon was strongly opposed to forgoing chemotherapy, and her oncologist was "cautiously optimistic" until three years later, when her scans continued to show that she was still in full remission since the surgery—something they had not imagined possible given the aggressive nature of her cancer.
They told her not to change a thing and to continue whatever she was doing, including the mistletoe injections. To this day, more than 11 years later, Ivelisse's cancer has never returned.
For those wishing to follow in her footsteps, Ivelisse warns: "Mistletoe is not just a supplement; it is definitely a science. Because it's a natural substance, everyone's body is going to respond differently.
"There are different types and strengths of mistletoe. There's mistletoe grown on ash trees, pine trees, apple trees—they're all different based on the type of cancer you have. In addition, as your body is healing, you may need different grades or formulations. So you really need to be seen by someone who is trained."
Ivelisse is still on mistletoe therapy, which often surprises people. However, to Ivelisse, stopping the mistletoe is not an option, given its effectiveness and relatively low cost ($140 per month).
Today, after being given an 8 percent chance of surviving her stage 4 colon cancer all those years ago, Ivelisse is as energetic as ever and a vibrant wife and mother who spends her days running the nonprofit she cofounded with her husband, BelieveBig.org, to help other cancer patients.
Scientists know for a fact that different cancers are caused by a variety of factors— toxins, viruses, bacteria, mitochondrial failure, genetic mutation—therefore, it makes sense that the supplements a cancer patient should take will also depend on a variety of factors.
The main thing to remember is that everyone's body is different, which means you will need individual testing with a qualified health professional to determine the best options for you.
Expand your healing team
Your primary doctor will be able to test your basic vitamin and mineral levels with a simple blood test, but to determine your full supplement needs, you will need to see a practitioner who specializes in looking at your body holistically, conducts thorough testing and has extensive training in the use of supplements.
Here is a partial list of various specialists who have such training, along with their professional organizations, so that you can find a practitioner to work with locally (or remotely via video conferencing):
Functional medicine doctors: Institute of Functional Medicine (www.ifm.org)
Naturopaths: American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (naturopathic.org)
Nutritionists: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (www.eatright.org)
Homeopaths: Society of Homeopaths (homeopathy-soh.org)
Traditional Chinese herbalists: National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (www.nccaom.org)
Cannabis dispensaries: Marijuana Doctors (www.marijuanadoctors.com)
Trained mistletoe practitioners: BelieveBig.org