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A surprising number of treatments for cancer were first discovered in medical plants, but the best herbal medicines for cancer patients are almost never a stand-alone treatment excluding all conventional, pharmaceutical medications.

Like many other products of the Philippines, herbal medicine tends not to get the attention it deserves. It's only in recent years that people outside the Philippines have begun to hear about banaba leaf as a supportive therapy for diabetes, or pandakaki-kuti as the "Filipino Viagra," or niyog-niyogan for treating parasitic infections. Although it's not a native plant of the Philippines, the guyabano (also known as soursop or graviola) tree is a very popular plant among herbalists and even doctors treating cancer with limited resources.

If you were to go to a medical school library and start pulling studies of guyabano in the treatment of cancer, it would seem that there is a lot of evidence in favor of using the leaves and bark of this tree in cancer therapy. Various articles report that guyabano products:

  • Kill squamous cell carcinomas, under laboratory conditions.
  • Contain acetogenins and flavonoids (plant compounds) that act synergestically against prostate cancer, under laboratory conditions.
  • Limit the growth of precancerous "crypts" in the colon, under laboratory conditions.
  • Induce cell cycle arrest and apoptosis through mitochondria-mediated pathway in human HCT-116 and HT-29 colon cancer cells, under laboratory conditions.
  • Prevent the growth of chemically induced papillomas (skin tumors), in mice, under laboratory conditions.
  • Contain tannins that prevent the proliferation of skin cancers, under laboratory conditions.

At first glance, your reaction to the citations of the scientific literature might be, "Wow! This stuff really treats cancer!" Then you look again, and you notice that all of the studies (and although 13 other studies are not summarized here, it's true of all of the published scientific studies of this plant) are limited to its effects on cancer cells in a test tube or on laboratory mice. This doesn't mean that the plant has no efficacy for human cancer treatment at all, but it does mean that scientists don't know:

  • Whether the compounds in the plant that have an effect on cancer cells in a test tube also have an effect on cancer cells in the human body,
  • If the compounds really do have an effect on cancer cells in the human body, whether they are broken down in the digestive tract before they even reach the cancer,
  • If the compounds really do have an effect on cancer cells in the human body and they survive their passage through the digestive tract and they have an effect on cancer, whether they have a beneficial effect at all stages of cancer, or
  • Whether the compounds in the plant do survive digestion and reach cancer cells and have a beneficial effect on all stages of the cancer, but they may interfere with other treatments (whether it's another herb or a conventional cancer treatment) that works better.

If your only option is an herb, and you have nothing to lose, and the herb has no known detrimental effects, then it usually makes perfect sense to use it. If you have other options, then you want to choose the best combination of treatments for your current stage of cancer. That may include an herb. It may not. Here's a concrete example.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Ben-Arye E, Popper-Giveon A, Samuels N, Mutafoglu K, Schiff E, Omran S, Charalambous H, Dweikat T, Ghrayeb I, Turker I, Hassan A, Hassan E, Nimri O, Kebudi R, Silbermann M. Communication and integration: a qualitative analysis of perspectives among Middle Eastern oncology healthcare professionals on the integration of complementary medicine in supportive cancer care. J Cancer Res Clin Oncol. 2016 Feb 1. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 26833203.
  • Rister, Robert S. Healing without Medication. Kindle edition, 2016.
  • Photo courtesy of steenbergs:
  • Photo courtesy of pathwithpaws:
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