Traditional Chinese Medicine
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
- Anorexia (loss of appetite)
- White blood cell reduction
A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis found improved quality of life with qigong plus mindfulness, Chinese herbal medicine, qigong, and acupuncture.2
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:3
- 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.
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.
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.4 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 September 14, 2020.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth
- National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine:
- Holistic Health Library: Five Element Theory Diet
- Liu J, Wang S, Zhang Y, Fan HT, Lin HS. Traditional Chinese medicine and cancer: history, present situation, and development. Thoracic Cancer. 2015 Sep;6(5):561-9.
- Ho ZC. Principles of diet therapy in ancient Chinese medicine: 'Huang Di Nei Jing'. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1993 Jun;2(2):91-5.
- Ye L, Jia Y et al. Traditional Chinese medicine in the prevention and treatment of cancer and cancer metastasis. Oncology Letters. 2015 Sep;10(3):1240-1250.
- Gwin P. How ancient remedies are changing modern medicine. National Geographic. January 2019.
- Cheng YY, Hsieh CH, Tsai TH. Concurrent administration of anticancer chemotherapy drug and herbal medicine on the perspective of pharmacokinetics. Journal of Food and Drug Analysis. 2018 Apr;26(2S):S88-S95.
- Gurdev Parmar and Tina Kaczor: Textbook of Naturopathic Oncology
- Cynthia Li: Strengthening Personal Immunity and Resilience
- Integrative Oncology Talk
- University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine: Introduction to Integrative Oncology (2019-2021)
- BCCT, KNOW Oncology and Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre: Patient Education Brochures
- Block KI, Block PB, Gyllenhaal C: Integrative Treatment for Colorectal Cancer
- Barbara MacDonald, ND, LAc: The Breast Cancer Companion: A Complementary Care Manual: Third Edition
- Dwight McKee, MD, editor: Clinical Pearls
- Raymond Chang, MD: Beyond the Magic Bullet: The Anti-Cancer Cocktail
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Neil McKinney, BSc, ND: Naturopathic Oncology, 3rd Edition
- Keith I. Block, MD: Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- Lone Star Medical Group: Natural Alternative Treatments
- Michael Lerner: Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer
- Cancer Research UK