There's one diagnosis that's dreaded perhaps more than any—cancer. It's the bad news from the doctor that none of us want to hear. But millions of Americans are faced with this diagnosis every year. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1.4 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2006. Additionally, the ACS predicts that 564,830 cancer deaths will occur in 2006 around the world.
Who's at risk? Virtually everyone—but especially those who have a high rate of cancer in their family. In the United States, men have slightly less than a one-in-two chance of developing cancer at some point in their lives. For women, the chance is slightly more than one in three.
Most people at risk respond to cancer in a reactive fashion: When they're diagnosed, they'll get chemotherapy, radiation, hormone treatments and immunotherapy. But there are proactive, and natural, methods of helping to prevent that diagnosis.
Many health practitioners agree that a low-fat, high-fiber, high-antioxidant diet, in combination with regular physical activity and low intake of alcoholic beverages, greatly reduces one's chances of developing cancer. And, obviously, keeping away from both firsthand and secondhand smoke is an easy way to avoid the most common types of lung cancer. However, those wishing to go beyond these lifestyle and dietary recommendations can strengthen the body's defense systems with supplements and herbs.
"No one [in the naturals and herbal industries] is saying they've found the cure for cancer, of course," says Soquel, Calif.-based herbalist Roy Upton, president and chief executive officer of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. "But there are plenty of natural preventive measures out there that those who are at high risk can take."
Magic mushrooms and herbs?
First and foremost on Upton's list is the reishi mushroom. "The reishi mushroom—also known by its Latin name Ganoderma lucidum—is among the most highly regarded botanicals in traditional Chinese medicine," he says. "It was originally used by Taoist monks to promote a peaceful state of mind." But more importantly, Upton adds, the mushroom has been found to possess significant anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiallergic, antiulcer, antitumor, antioxidant, immune-augmenting, heart- and nervous system-strengthening, and cholesterol-balancing properties.
"Taking reishi mushrooms in capsule form is probably the first thing I'd recommend to someone who believed he or she was at high risk for cancer," Upton says.
Matthew Weber, a lead practitioner with Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacies, agrees. "Reishi mushroom is one of the most potent tonic herbs out there," he says. "It is a dramatic anti-inflammatory and stimulates both white and red blood cell count, as well as strengthening bone marrow. It also strengthens the immune system and endocrine system."
The anti-inflammatory properties are key, Weber says, because many researchers now believe that "the genesis of many chronic diseases like cancer has to do with chronic inflammation."
Like Upton, Weber recommends taking reishi in capsule form. "Alcoholic extracts are not the best way to get the best results from any herb," he says. "The polysaccharides—which are the main active ingredient—aren't as effective when mixed with alcohol."
Indeed, Japanese studies show that the active anticancer constituents in reishi, called beta-D-glucan, are polysaccharides made up of many little sugar molecules chained together and bound to amino acids. These intricate sugars stimulate or modulate the immune system by activating immune cells such as macrophage and T-cells, as well as increasing the immunoglobin levels to produce a defensive response to foreign cells, whether bacteria, viruses or tumor cells.
Another tonic herb that both Upton and Weber recommend is astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous). A University of Texas Medical Center study found that the herb restored or enhanced the function of white blood cells that were taken from patients with cancer. In some cases, the damaged cells were improved to the point that they became more active than normal cells taken from cancer-free people.
Weber also singles out ginseng as another preventive herb. "It's one of the most widely used herbs in the world, and it deeply strengthens the immune system to a high degree," he says. "It's really an all-purpose remedy. It's what's most commonly prescribed to people in China who get sick a lot."
Most of the studies involving natural herbs and tonics in regard to cancer prevention and treatment have taken place in China and Korea, and, Weber says, further research is needed, using Western methodologies, to convince skeptical mainstream doctors and scientists. Still, Weber believes that the use of alternative cancer-preventive measures and therapies will become more prevalent in the future. "As the information gets out there about the successes people have had with these methods, more people at high risk of cancer and those diagnosed with cancer are going to start exploring these options," he says. "It's really worth doing."
Tyler Wilcox is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 34, 38