Herbal Support Group

By Mead, Nathaniel | Vegetarian Times, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Herbal Support Group


Mead, Nathaniel, Vegetarian Times


Plants should be part of every cancer patient's healing arsenal

Sally Jensen was a 52-year-old housewife and ex-smoker when she got the bad news nearly three years ago: She was diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of lung cancer. Her physicians told her she had at most eight months to live. They offered her chemotherapy but said it would only be "palliative."

Sally wasn't willing to give up, however. Three months of research led her to Keith 1. Block, M.D., medical director of the Institute for Integrative Cancer Care and Block Medical Center in Evanston, Ill., and clinical professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago. After studying her blood chemistry and disease characteristics, Block put her on a vegan diet and gave her herbal supplements (including ginseng, astragalus, 14 rehmannia and atractylodes) and specific antioxidant compounds and anti-inflammatory agents, immune enhancers and other bioactive agents. He further recommended that she try fractionated chemotherapy (delivered in a gradual, incremental fashion). Sally tolerated the chemotherapy easily and recovered quickly from the treatment. One year later, scans revealed that her massive, inoperable tumor had shrunk down to a tiny spot. Best of all, Sally feels that she has her health-and her life-back on track.

Block, who has documented literally hundreds of cases like Sally's in his two decades of practice, views the biochemical and energetic milieu of the body as the terrain, and the seeds of disease either flourish or perish. The key, he says, is creating a strong healthy "soil" in which healthy plants-your body's organs and organ systems-can grow and thrive.

The use of herbal therapy as part of a comprehensive approach to chronic disease treatment is a growing trend. Block, a pioneer in the field of holistic cancer care, reports that these natural agents have demonstrable clinical benefits but adds that they must be used appropriately when combined with other therapies, such as nutritional, stress-management, therapeutic exercise as well as conventional treatments.

For years, Block was one of the few M.D.s following this sort of integrative program, but today physicians are having a hard time ignoring his approach to herbal therapy-their patients are either demanding it outright or self-prescribing in quiet defiance. Alternative medicine is clearly picking up steam: One-third of all Americans now use herbs or medicinal plants, according to the American Botanical Council, and collectively we spend $4 billion a year on them.

Part of the motivation, of course, is a belief in herbs' efficacy. But another is the desire to avoid pharmaceuticals, whose dangers are only beginning to be widely reported. According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, from 1982 to 1993, an estimated 1.2 million deaths resulted from adverse reactions to prescription drugs. Every year, 2 million Americans are hospitalized from drug side effects and 100,000 die. Contrast that to just 33 deaths linked with nutritional supplements (mostly from iron filings) and a virtual null set of those from herbal products.

About 1 in every 4 of our most popular drugs have their origins in the plant world. Several anticancer drugs come from plants, including Taxol (from the Pacific yew) and vincristine (from the Madagascar rosy periwinkle). It's well known that aspirin comes from willow trees, and digitalis (heart medicine) from foxglove. Yet M.D.s and pharmacists like to argue that the unique chemicals in drugs are better because they're stronger and more targeted, or "disease-specific," than herbs. The trouble is, sometimes these drugs are actually too strong and often have side effects that their herbal counterparts don't have. Herbs may be less potent, but they're also less toxic. This is largely due to the fact that in herbs, the compounds are found in combination with other natural substances, which often can enhance the therapeutic effect while minimizing toxicity. …

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