Friday, October 29, 2010

The Safe and Efficacious Use of Chinese Herbs for Radiotherapy Patients (Part I)

Alex Comments:  The following two newsletter posts I wrote prior to my own cancer diagnosis.  Little did I know I was going to be receiving radiation myself.  My friend, colleague and visionary, Ellen Rudolph directs the Life Cycle Health Center.  I have been working with her for a few years. 

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Life Cycle Health Center
The Safe and Efficacious Use of Chinese Herbs for Radiotherapy Patients (Part I)

Dear Doctors, Nurses, Caregivers, Patients and Friends:

Previously we have referenced some of the numerous research studies from China demonstrating that integrating Chinese medicine--acupuncture, therapeutic exercise such as qi gong and tai qi, massage, diet therapies, and herbal medicine--with Western medicine benefits cancer patients more than either medicine on its own.

This week, Alex Berks, licensed acupuncturist and Clinical Director of Oncology for Life Cycle Health Center, who has himself just completed active treatment for an aggressive soft tissue sarcoma, discusses how Chinese herbal medicine combined with conventional radiotherapy can be of tremendous value to cancer patients:

While advances in the targeting of radiation therapy have vastly improved, allowing greater protection of surrounding tissue, radiation can still pose a significant challenge for some patients. Radiotherapy may damage fragile mucosal barriers in the lungs and intestines, injure salivary production, cause digestive problems, dryness, inflammation and even scorching of fragile tissues, depending on location, intensity and duration of the treatment.  It can also injure the bone marrow.

From a Chinese medicine perspective, radioactivity damages tissue, causes inflammation and oxidation and is considered a "toxic heat".  Chinese medicine refers to cancer itself as a toxin.  Radiotherapy is viewed as a toxin used to kill a toxin.

"Rebalancing" is the core concept of Chinese medicine and forms the basis of the diagnostic system that allows for individuation of treatment based upon patterns that individuals express, not just their western disease diagnosis.  For example, a person who has a "dry" constitutional type (think post menopause, for example) will have a more difficult time with radiation than a person who has more phlegm, or excess body weight or a more moist constitution.  According to Chinese medicine, when the organ systems are in balance and qi (vital energy) and blood flow smoothly, it is much harder for disease to take root.  

Eating foods and taking herbs that are cool in nature, with moistening properties that mitigate toxic heat and activate and nourish the blood provides the natural balance for radiation toxicity and are generally recommended for radiation patients.  Aloe is an example of a cool, moistening anti-inflammatory plant. It is used topically and internally to soothe burns and ease inflamed tissue.  Patients undergoing radiation therapy may benefit from many herbs in the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia that have cooling and moistening properties and that target specific organs. 

As radiation damage accumulates over the course of treatment and in its aftermath, lingering toxic heat depletes the moistening properties of the blood (a Chinese medicine concept) and injures the mechanisms of energy production (excessive oxidation and inflammation).  If the body cannot successfully compensate for this then opportunistic infections and inflammation can injure vital organs, possibly leading to long term damage and secondary cancers.  Applying Chinese medicine diagnostic principles and appropriate treatment at each stage is a way to help prevent this degeneration and many side-effects.  
In summary, Chinese herbal medicine can be combined efficaciously and safely to improve and prevent side effects of treatment, as well as preserve long term vitality and survival.  To achieve maximum benefit, patients should commence herbal treatment 1 week before starting radiotherapy and continue for at least 6 months after treatment.

Please consult with a trained Chinese Medicine practitioner who is knowledgeable in the integrative support of cancer recovery, such as our team at Life Cycle Health Center.
In good health,
Alex Berks, L.Ac., Clinical Director, Oncology and
Ellen Rudolph, Executive Director,
Life Cycle Health Center

Resources and Studies Showing Benefits of Chinese Herbal Medicine for Radiotherapy Side Effects

Integrative medicine has been practiced in China for 50+ years. 77 year-old Dr. Zhang Dai-zhao, a well-known oncologist in China who is currently chief physician and doctoral supervisor at China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing has been engaged in preventing and treating tumors with integrative medicine for over 40 years. He is one of the leading authorities on the usage of integrative medicine to relieve the side effects of cancer treatment and has focused his research and practice on improving the quality of life for tumor patients by increasing the survival rates and lessening side effects from radiation and chemotherapy.

The 2007 English translation of his book, An Integrated Clinical Approach with Chinese Medicine: Alleviating the Side Effects of Cancer Treatment (2nd Edition People's Medical Publishing House), is an invaluable resource for  clinicians who are involved in the management of cancer. It focuses on   using modern diagnostic methods and Chinese medical treatment to address the undesirable, adverse effects of radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other treatment modalities.

His book cites cites studies that demonstrate the value of Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) in conjunction with radiotherapy (RT) to improve survival rates, lessen the impact of depletion of white blood cells, and improve a patient's ability to complete the full course of radiotherapy treatment.

1. This study, from page 22, reported by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, included 197 nasopharyngeal cancer patients who were treated with  Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM)  plus radiotherapy (RT), compared to radiotherapy alone.

Survival Rate
1 year  3 Years 5 years
CHM + RT 91.3% 67.4% 52.4%
RT 80%  33.3% 24%

Disappearance of the tumor
CHM + RT 95.7%
RT 88.6%

Cause of Death - primary lesion relapse or metastatic lesions
CHM + RT 34.8%
RT 52.4%

The combined therapy group had more than double the 5-year survival compared to the radiotherapy alone group. The tumor was killed in more patients in the combined therapy group and the remote metastasis rate was less in the combined group. 

2. In a study looking at the efficacy of herbs to prevent and treat side effects of radiation therapy, 71 patients were an active treatment group with herbs and radiation. The control group was given a placebo herbal formula plus radiation. Results showed that 84.5% of patients were able to finish the full course of radiotherapy versus 63.3% in the control group.  (Neither the type of cancer nor the staging was not revealed.)

3. In another small study, white blood cell counts did not go as low in a combined treated group as they did with radiotherapy alone.  One particular formula, Fu Zheng Xiao Formula (FZZX) was shown to moderate T-lymphocyte subset to enhance radiotherapy efficacy.

4. Another combined herb-radiation study was conducted with nasopharyngeal cancer patients who continued taking herbs for 6 months after radiation was finished.  The 5-year survival rate was 75%.  The authors indicate that Chinese medicine combined with radiation improved the effectiveness of radiation therapy while minimizing its toxicty in both the short and long term.  There was no mention of a control group in this study.

5. Rat studies have shown improved efficacy of white blood cell counts and survival rate when radiation and herbs were combined.  Interestingly, survival rates were even higher in the rats that were given the herbal mixture 1 week before beginning treatment with radiation.

The information in this newsletter is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with your doctor.