Traditional Chinese Medicine

Key Points

  • TCM has its own stand-alone system of cancer care, but many of these components are also used as complementary approaches to enhance Western conventional cancer care.
  • Research finds that certain TCM therapies are effective and safe in supporting or complementing conventional treatments. 
  • TCM therapies are used either alone or in conjunction with chemotherapy.
  • Preliminary research results show anticancer effects of some TCM therapies.
  • Caution is encouraged in using supplements and natural products prepared in Asia. Reports of contamination of some herbal remedies have been reported regularly at least since 2002.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) comprises many components including acupuncture, qigong, massage, Chinese herbs, and Five Element Theory Diet. While TCM has its own stand-alone system of cancer care, many of these components are also used as complementary approaches to enhance Western conventional cancer treatment, manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Traditional Chinese medicine is perhaps the most widely used of all traditional medicines by US cancer patients. Many patients report demonstrable benefits of TCM when undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.

TCM in Managing Symptoms

A substantial scientific literature on TCM has found that certain TCM therapies are effective and safe in supporting or complementing conventional treatments. During radiotherapy and chemotherapy, TCM treatment can reduce toxic side effects such as these:1

  • Myelosuppression (suppression of bone marrow)
  • Gastrointestinal reactions such as nausea and vomiting
  • Liver or kidney impairment
  • Skin and mucosa radiation injuries
  • Fatigue
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite)
  • Thirst
  • White blood cell reduction
  • Cough

TCM and Anticancer Effects

TCM combined with chemotherapy has improved efficacy—decreasing cancer activity or progression and increasing survival—with fewer adverse reactions compared to chemotherapy alone. TCM, either alone or as an adjuvant therapy, shows anticancer effects in limited, preliminary studies, with examples of herbs given for each effect:2

  • Induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) of cancer cells (Mylabris, garlic, cinobufacini, Bu-Zhong-Yi-Qi-Tang, Sho-Saiko-To)
  • Promote functions of the immune system (Mylabris, ginseng)
  • Promote the activity of lymphocytes, natural killer cells and macrophages (astragalus)
  • Prevent the incidence of cancer in patients with precancerous lesions and conditions (quercetin, curcumin, silymarin [milk thistle), ginseng, rutin)
  • Increase tumor response to therapy (astragalus)
  • Inhibit tumor growth (Bu-Zhong-Yi-Qi-Tang, Sho-Saiko-To, garlic)
  • Inhibit angiogenesis (blood vessel growth to feed tumors) (Ginkgo biloba extract, Scutellaria barbata D., YZXJ formulation)
  • Reduce mortality (astragalus)
  • Prevent and treat recurrence and metastasis (Juzen-Taiho-To, YZXJ formulation)

In sum, evidence indicates that TCM is worth considering as part of integrative cancer care. 

Access

Finding practitioners who have been trained to administer TCM treatments for cancer patients is relatively easy. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine provides a searchable directory, for example.

Cautions

Caution is advised in using herbs prepared in Asia. Persistent reports of contamination of some herbal remedies—sometimes a substantial percentage of those tested—by microbes, heavy metals, and/or DNA of undeclared plants or animals have surfaced over several years.3 Consult with a certified clinician in choosing Chinese herbal preparations from quality sources.

Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on June 28, 2018.

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