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Traditional Chinese Medicine for Cancer

Acupuncture for cancer - Baikal skullcap root, white peony root, Chinese date and licorice root

At Oncology Acupuncture Toronto, we offer Traditional Chinese Medicine for cancer patients in Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Etobicoke, King City, Brampton, Aurora, North York, Toronto and the rest of Greater Toronto Area. Chinese medicine includes acupuncture, acupressure, cupping, guasha (scraping), moxibustion (mugwort) and heat therapy, herbal medicine, nutrition and dietary therapy, as well as breathing and meditation exercises.

“Traditional Chinese Medicine Oncology” is a specialized field of Traditional Chinese Medicine focused on cancer care, usually requiring 8+ years of education and training, with extensive training in herbal medicine. Clinicians all over China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, the rest of Asia, and many parts of Europe, North America, the Middle East and beyond, work with thousands of cancer patients every day using Traditional East Asian Medicine. In integrative hospitals, herbal medicine and acupuncture is used alongside conventional cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy to eradicate or slow the progression of cancer, as well as to reduce side effects and improve quality of life.

Modern Research into Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine for Cancer

Herbal medicine has captured the imagination of medical researchers worldwide, especially after Tu You You’s research team won the 2015 Nobel Prize in medicine for the use of artemisinin (derived from sweet wormwood, a traditional Chinese herb). The National Cancer Institute in the United States, for example, has played a key role in bringing together researchers from around the world who focus in this area. They summarize their past and current research into Traditional Chinese Medicine for cancer here.

Researchers at Yale University have done a series of successful studies showing the ability of a classical four-herb formula to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy, while enhancing the cancer-fighting properties of chemotherapy drugs in colorectal, liver and pancreatic cancers.[1]

Other research from Australia, using a more recent systems biology approach, has shown how combinations of Chinese herbs act together to achieve remarkable effects on cancer cells, more than you would expect from each plant alone. The researchers say “If we broke down and tested the components of many Traditional Chinese Medicines, we would find that individual compounds don’t have much activity on their own. It’s the combination of compounds which can be effective, and potentially means few side-effects as well.”[2]

Finally, this paper summarizes some of the research into how Chinese herbal medicine, alone or in combination, has been shown to be effective in lab and animal studies, including studies that try to determine the mechanism of action of the herbs (what kind of cellular pathways the herbs work on). Some of the herbs have been shown, for example, to have effects on: anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, apoptosis (cancer cell death), cell cycle arrest (stopping the reproduction of cancer cells), growth inhibition, anti-angiogenesis (stopping tumours from forming their own blood supply networks), immune-regulating, and inhibition of metastasis (stopping the spread of cancer to distant parts of the body). Others are anti-estrogenic and can be used against estrogen-sensitive breast cancers.[3]

Is Traditional Chinese Medicine safe for cancer patients?

These days, many people hear about and purchase Chinese herbal remedies online. This can have several risks, including buying fake or adulterated herbs, bypassing checks and regulations about the herb quality (pesticide and heavy metal contamination, for example), and even herbal remedies that actually have pharmaceutical drugs in them (and not on the label). We recommend only taking herbs under the continued guidance of a trained Traditional Chinese Medicine or East Asian medicine (e.g. Kampo) herbalist who has extensive experience working with cancer. In certain types of cancers, for example hormone-sensitive cancers, it is also important to avoid herbs that could boost certain hormones and accidentally strengthen the cancer cells.

Another hesitation that oncologists and patients often have is that our treatments may interfere with conventional cancer treatment. After learning how these medical approaches are used in combination in many countries around the world, at Oncology Acupuncture Toronto, we are careful to avoid interactions. We do not prescribe herbs that have been shown to interfere with drugs that are being taken, or that are likely to do so. In many patients on chemotherapy drugs, we avoid herbs altogether and use non-drug treatments like acupuncture, acupressure, diet, breathing and mindfulness meditation.

When used properly and at the right stage, Chinese herbal medicine can be very safe in the cancer setting. For example, this overview of 51 meta-analyses of Chinese herbal medicine for palliative cancer patients found no serious adverse effects in all included studies.[4]

Cancer in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory

In Traditional Chinese Medicine medical theory, cancer does not come out of nowhere. It results from a combination of Qi Deficiency (you can think of it as a lowered immune system, which is unable to identify and destroy cancerous cells as it does it people who don’t have a cancer diagnosis), Blood Stagnation (problems with microcirculation that have been shown to exist in the tumour environment, and which in Chinese medicine can result from many causes such as emotional imbalance, previous injury, lack of exercise, other chronic disease, etc.), Phlegm (fluid metabolism issues), and Toxin (toxic factors that may come from the environment, such as chemical exposures from smoking, pollution, food, workplace, environment, etc.). In conjunction with modern imaging and lab results, TCM Oncology practitioners around the world use traditional diagnostic techniques (thorough questioning, tongue and pulse diagnosis, abdominal and meridian palpation, etc.) to determine the relative strength and weakness of each of these factors in the body, and treat accordingly.

At Oncology Acupuncture Toronto, we follow this method of carefully analyzing your signs and symptoms, your physical and emotional state, to determine your unique balance and needs. We use knowledge from modern research as well as classical medical literature to determine the best treatment. We work with you through all stages and types of cancer, from prevention to treatment to recovery.  Finally, we work closely and refer frequently to naturopathic doctors, lymphedema specialists, psychotherapists, nurses, and other health professionals as needed. To get a free 15 minute consultation, click here.


[1] Liu, Shwu-Huey & Cheng, Yung-Chi. (2012). Old formula, new Rx: The journey of PHY906 as cancer adjuvant therapy. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 140. 614-23. 10.1016/j.jep.2012.01.047.

[2] Zhipeng Qu, Jian Cui, Yuka Harata-Lee, Thazin Nwe Aung, Qianjin Feng, Joy M. Raison, Daniel R. Kortschak, David L. Adelson. Identification of candidate anti-cancer molecular mechanisms of compound kushen injection using functional genomics. Oncotarget, 2014; DOI: 10.18632/oncotarget.11788

[3] Jiao, L., Bi, L., Lu, Y., Wang, Q., Gong, Y., Shi, J., & Xu, L. (2018). Cancer chemoprevention and therapy using chinese herbal medicine. Biological procedures online, 20, 1. doi:10.1186/s12575-017-0066-1.

[4] Chung, V.C., Wu, X., Hui, E.P., Ziea, E.T., Ng, B.F., Ho, R.S., Tsoi, K.K., Wong, S.Y., Wu, J.C., 2015. Effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine for cancer palliative care: overview of systematic reviews with meta-analyses. Scientific Reports 5, 18111. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep18111

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