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Herbal Treatments - History and Controversy

review by Irene Alleger

Herbs Against Cancer
by Ralph W. Moss, PhD
Equinox Press Inc., 144 St. John's Place, Brooklyn, New York; 718-636-4433
Quality paperback, 1998, $16.95 US, $23.95 Canada, 300 pp.

Of all the controversies in medicine today, none is more apt to incite the wrath of the medical establishment than alternative cancer treatment. Cancer treatments other than chemotherapy and radiation have been so thoroughly suppressed in the US that even the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), expressly mandated to investigate promising alternative treatments, seems unable to look at herbal treatments for cancer without bias. Yet in the 1950's - only 40 years ago - Harry Hoxsey had 17 clinics nationwide, the largest chain of cancer treatment centers in existence, using an herbal formula with apparent success. The American Medical Association (AMA) tried for many years to shut him down, with little success. (They finally bankrupted him with legal expenses, a strategy still used today against heretics). Hoxsey was not an MD, but he was assuredly sincere as he often treated patients without charge, and there are many people today who attest to the efficacy of his formula in curing cancer.

What's happened since the 1950's is that pharmaceutical drugs have been declared the only "scientific" treatment choice, especially chemotherapy for cancer, and herbal remedies are putatively described as "not scientific" and therefore dangerous. (In California, it's against the law to use anything but chemotherapy and radiation for treating cancer).

In his new book Herbs Against Cancer Ralph Moss sets out meticulously researched material on the major herbs which have been used in the treatment of cancer, and their often colorful proponents, such as Harry Hoxsey. Although cancer has been called a disease of civilization, signs of cancer have been found in prehistoric skeletons, so it's a good guess that the use of plants with antitumor activity predates modern civilization by eons. And throughout the 20th century medical herbalists have been proposing and using cancer formulas, even offering their treatments for testing by the National Cancer Institute, but like Harry Hoxsey, they have been ignored, or called "quacks" and harrassed.

To even suggest anything positive about herbs for cancer angers many conservative doctors. Ralph Moss deftly picks his way through this minefield at the beginning of Herbs Against Cancer stating, "I will not sweep potentially unpleasant or dangerous facts about herbs under the rug...If I know about them, so will you. However, that said, it is emphatically true that herbs in general are much safer than pharmaceuticals." He then goes on to describe the earliest cancer treatments using herbs and other natural substances, and the historical detail is important and instructive.

For instance, the herbs used externally for skin cancers and tumors are called escharotics or caustic salves and were an important part of Harry Hoxsey's treatments. This herbal treatment was widely used for centuries and the chapter on escharotics includes the historical development of Mohs' Microsurgery, a modern technique using an herbal salve adjunctive to surgery.

There are chapters on Essiac Tea, The Grape Cure, and Mistletoe, all carefully researched and the material is cogently written, without bias or hype. Moss then examines chemotherapy's herbal roots, proof that herbs used against cancer are not merely "snake oil." He lists about half a dozen cytotoxic agents being used today which have been used as folk remedies: Colchicine (Crocus), Oncovin and Velban (periwinkle), Etoposide (Mayapple), Taxol (Yew), and Camptothecin (Chinese tree). The discussion of the clinical work and historical development of these drugs, clearly shows the bias of research whose primary goal is the production of patentable drugs, rather than curing cancer.

It is interesting to note the progression of books authored by Ralph Moss: The Cancer Industry and Questioning Chemotherapy and now Herbs Against Cancer. As an acclaimed science writer in the area of cancer treatment, there are few medical writers today who can bring to their subject as much expertise, and few knowledgeable enough to propose a serious second look at the herbs used traditionally to treat cancer. He presents both documented and anecdotal material on the historical use of these herbs, keeping a neutral attitude throughout the book.

Moss states in his introduction that this is the first of two books on the topic of botanicals and cancer. The main focus here is the ongoing conflict between mainstream doctors and advocates of natural agents; how these "herbs of contention" have been used in the Western world to treat cancer, often successfully, and how orthodox medicine has arbitrarily denied their effectiveness.

One of the encouraging bits of news is that the World Health Organization (WHO) is doing much to promote a return to herbal medicine in the developing world, a voice of reason calling for the integration of Western technology and traditional herbal medicine.

With a historical account of the successes and failures of herbal cancer treatments and the controversies surrounding them, Ralph Moss has laid the groundwork for a fresh look at cancer treatment. At a time when both the public and oncologists themselves are becoming dissatisfied with the standard treatments for cancer, Herbs Against Cancer may be a harbinger of better things to come.
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