Natural Foods Merchandiser

Lend support in the post-cancer battle

In 2006, the American Cancer Society estimates that 1.4 million people will get cancer and that the disease will overcome 564,830 of them. This is a powerful statistic. But if there is a "cup-half-full" view, it's that 834,960 of those diagnosed will live.

Many will become experts in cancer and their own health, says Robin DiPasquale, N.D., a registered herbalist with a private practice in Duvall, Wash., and chair of the botanical medicine department of Bastyr University.

Although dispensing medical advice in a health food aisle is illegal, there are ways that naturals retailers can help, and recommendations that can be made.

First and foremost, retailers can play an integral part in the natural products mantra: education, say DiPasquale and Iris R. Bell, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of Family and Community Medicine at The University of Arizona College of Medicine and a homeopathic research consultant.

"There are sort of the broad-based pieces of information about all of these products that [retailers] certainly can provide," Bell says. For the consumer, she says, "When your back is to the wall as a cancer patient and you need help, you really have to be your own advocate and your own investigator. You need to pursue it because there are options out there that can be helpful that you can't find in Western drugs."

When a consumer does realize that fact, your store could be top on his or her list of places to investigate. "The clerk is the first person that somebody's going to talk to, so they have the ability to say, 'Here's some ideas for you to think about, reflect on. Have you put these lifestyle issues in place?'" DiPasquale says.

And, Bell says, that alone can help tremendously. "[Feeling empowered] helps with patient outcomes. There have been recent studies in homeopathy, for example, where the empowerment … did contribute, in a very complex way, to how well the person did a year later."

DiPasquale and Bell stress that cancer is a complex and individualized disease. Both also say that while working with a qualified practitioner is key, some basics may help customers start on the road to empowerment.

"When somebody's recovering from surgery or chemo or radiation, they'll have different problems coming up depending on what they've done," DiPasquale says. Overall, she cautiously recommends four pillars of defense: an antioxidant, essential fatty acids, a "baseline" multivitamin and pro- and prebiotics.

She also has recommendations for the four problem areas are:

Adaptagens—They "work in a way that lets the adrenal glands rest, diminish the response to stress and allow the body to rebuild."
Nervines—Or "things that quiet the nervous system so that [patients are] not being over-reactive or in a hyper-worrisome nervous output state," she says. "When people have been diagnosed with cancer, they usually can't rest anymore in their mind."
Liver herbs and liver support— DiPasquale calls this grouping "another one that really needs to be addressed."
Digestion—"People need to look at how they are digesting life because obviously they're not digesting something appropriately."

Bell says, "There are—particularly through homeopathy and Chinese medicine—a number of options available for treating the side effects or after-effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

"In Chinese medicine, at the most superficial level, there are things like shiitake and reishi mushrooms and astragalus … that are commonly used as broad supporters of the immune system, to help rebuild the body after it's been broken down by the after effects of the chemotherapy and radiation."

Regarding homeopathy, Bell says that it's not generally for healthy customers. "In general, they want to take it when they have a problem and stop it as soon as the problem starts improving or changing." So customers shouldn't think of that system as they would, say, a daily multivitamin.

Bell cautions that retailers—and their customers—should not fall into the trap of thinking of herbs and supplements as targeted drugs. "When you're using an alternative thing to be laser-like on a particular problem, they might be causing some problems somewhere else," she says. "Their tool is not a laser, it's sunlight."

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, research backs natural help for prevention and treatment of cancer, including two herbs and one supplement that show promise in post-cancer care.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine for, among may uses, increased endurance and immune-system strengthening. Research conducted in the United States has studied astragalus' ability to bolster the sagging immune systems of those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. The university's medical reference Web site states, "Astragalus supplements have been shown to speed recovery and extend life expectancy in these patients."

Ginger (Zingiber officinale), which is widely used in Chinese and Indian traditional medicine, is most commonly known for helping digestive problems. Ginger may be prescribed for stomach upset related to chemotherapy, but, according to the American Cancer Society, very little is known about ginger's effectiveness in that arena. However, the U of M site states, "Ginger may reduce the toxic side effects of cyclophosphamide (a medication used to treat a variety of cancers). More research is needed in this area."

Glutamine is an amino acid that the body can make, but "under extreme physical stress the demand for glutamine exceeds the body's ability to synthesize it," according to the U of M. In studies, endurance athletes using supplemental glutamine are less apt to get sick, and they recover faster. In fact, the immune system relies on glutamine for energy.

The U of M reference states, "Many people with cancer have abnormally low levels of glutamine. For this reason, some experts speculate that glutamine may prove to be a good addition to conventional treatment of cancer under certain conditions. In fact, nutritional support with supplemental glutamine is often used in malnourished cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments, and sometimes used in patients undergoing bone marrow transplants."

However, there are mixed messages, with some studies showing that glutamine may stimulate tumor growth in colon cancer, for instance. But other studies show that the amino acid increases the effectiveness and reduces the side effects of some types of chemotherapy.

According to the American Botanical Council's educational literature, aloe (Aloe vera) has benefits in post-cancer care. Animal studies have found that aloe-emodin, a component of aloe, possesses antitumor and anticancer activity. In fact, a study published in June 2000 in Cancer Research found that AE had both in vitro and in vivo antitumor activity in mice, and could be used in a conceptually new lead antitumor drug."

Further research
The Columbia University Integrative Therapies Program for Children with Cancer maintains a list of Web links for herbs and nutrition as they relate to cancer.

The ACS maintains a complementary and alternative therapies site at

The U of M site is at

The National Cancer Institute of the U.S. National Institutes of Health is currently conducting a study of American ginseng (Panax ginseng L., Araliaceae) in patients with cancer-related fatigue. This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter study will compare the efficacy, determine the toxic effects and tolerability and determine the impact of American ginseng on quality of life in cancer patients. Of course, anyone using herbs and supplements in conjunction with cancer treatment or after should consult with a medical professional. Supportive Care in Cancer, the journal of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer, published a study in June 2004 on the use of complementary and alternative medicine, focusing on herb and vitamin use, in relation to chemotherapy. "Considerable potential exists for detrimental chemotherapy-HV interactions. Methods to improve communication of HV use between cancer patients receiving chemotherapy and health-care practitioners are necessary to identify and minimize the risk of these interactions," the researchers concluded.

"One of the other things I generally recommend to people is that if you do want to try something, at least stand back and take a look after a period of reasonable trial and say, 'Wait a minute. Have I gradually gone downhill or uphill? Or is nothing happening?'" Bell says. "You don't want to spend money on products that ought to help you, but they don't do anything. So, again it's back to the consumer to be a very astute observer of what's happening with themselves."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 40-41

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