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Chinese Medicines Help Cancer Patients to Cope With Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy works by using drugs to kill cancer cells. In comparison with surgery or radiotherapy, chemotherapy can achieve a more effective result. Cancer-fighting drugs are administered through injection or orally, and travel in the blood to reach to the areas where the cancer cells may have spread. However, because of its less selective approach, chemotherapy will cause more harm to normal tissues and organs. Adverse effects in the blood production system, immune system, digestive system and nervous system will generally appear during treatment, greatly reducing the chance of achieving an optimal outcome. TCM helps patients to tolerate chemotherapy better.

Chemotherapy is associated with a wide range of side effects. Symptoms and extent of the severity vary, depending on the cancer type, chemotherapy regimen and individual physical condition. TCM physicians can make a judgment based on holistic diagnostic techniques, and use herbs to relieve the side effects.

General enhancement during chemotherapy

TCM believes that typical chemotherapy side effects such as dizziness, fatigue, depression, poor appetite, insomnia, dry mouth, urinary and bowel disorders are mostly due to blood and qi deficiencies, as well as under-functioning liver and kidneys. Thus, the appropriate strategy is to invigorate the spleen and stomach so as to ensure production of blood and qi and to nourish the liver and kidneys. Some classic prescriptions can achieve these effects:

  • All-inclusive Great Tonifying Decoction (shi quan da bu tang)
  • Six-ingredient Pill with Rehmannia (liu wei di huang tang)
  • Restore the Spleen Decoction (gui pi tang)
  • Costus and Amomum with Six Noble Ingredients Decoction (xiang sha liu jun zi tang )

    Digestive protection during chemotherapy

    In TCM, anti-cancer drugs usually lead to under-functioning of the spleen and stomach that causes gastrointestinal symptoms like poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Common prescriptions that help to relieve the symptoms are:

  • Inula & Haematite Decoction (Xuan fu dai zhe tang)
  • Citrus & Pinellia Decoction (er chen tang)
  • Four-gentlemen Decoction (si jun zi tang)
  • Strengthen the Spleen Pill (Jian pi wan )
  • Tonify the Middle & Augment the Qi Decoction (Bu zhong yi qi tang)

    When abdominal pain is obvious, add:

    yan hu suo

    Corydalis tube

    Rhizoma corydalis

    bai shao

    White peony root

    Radix Paeoniae Alba

    When diarrhea is obvious, add:

    shan yao

    Chinese yam

    Rhizoma Dioscoreae

    er cha

    Cutch black catechu


    Bone marrow protection during chemotherapy

    Most cancer-fighting drugs result in a certain degree of suppression of bone marrow production, which causes anemia, a low blood count, neutropenia or thrombocytopenia. When this happens, physicians have different herbs to target specific conditions.

  • TCM believes that a decline in red blood cells is attributed to blood and qi deficiencies. Common herbal ingredients to overcome this include:

    huang qi Astragalus Radix Astragali
    dang shen Pilose asiabell root Radix Codonopsis Pilosulae
    dang gui Angelica root Radix Angelicae Sinensis
    shu di Processed rhemannia rhizome Rhizoma Rehmanniae Praeparatae
    shou wu Fleece flower root Radix Polygoni Mulitflori

    Fleece flower root
    Evodia fruit
    Processed rhemannia rhizome

  • A decline in white blood cells should replenish the qi, fortify the spleen, and nourish the liver and kidneys. Common herbal ingredients include:

    huang qi Astragalus Radix Astragali
    nan sha shen Fourleaf ladybell root Radix Adenophorae Strictae
    huang jing Solomon's seal rhizome Rhizoma Polygonati
    nu zhen zhi Glossy privet fruit Fructus Ligustri Lucidi
    gou qi chi Chinese wolfberry fruit Fructus Lycii

  • Decreased blood platelets usually lead to bleeding problems. TCM will solve this by replenishing qi and controlling blood flow, as well as cooling down the blood to arrest bleeding. Common herbal ingredients used include:

    sheng di Fresh rhemannia root Radix Rehmanniae
    nu zhen zhi Glossy privet fruit Fructus Ligustri Lucidi
    wu zhu yu Evodia fruit Fructus Evodiae
    ji xue teng Suberect spatholobus stem Caulis Spatholobi
    da zao Common jujube fruit Fructus Ziziphi Jujubae

    Liver protection during chemotherapy

    Long term or high doses of cancer-fighting drugs will damage liver function causing acute hepatitis, fatty degeneration or cirrhosis . Physicians will aim at clearing heat , eliminating dampness , soothing the liver and gallbladder; common herbal ingredients include:

    yin chen Virgate Wormwood herb Herba Artemisiae
    chai hu Bupleurum root Radix Bupleuri
    yu jin Turmeric root-tuber Radix Curcumae
    zhi zi Capejasmine fruit Fructus Gardeniae
    long dan cao Chinese gentian root Radix Gentianae

    Capejasmine fruit
    Virgate Wormwood herb
    Chinese gentian root

    Promoting hair re-growth

    Hair loss is the most noticeable side effect of cancer treatment; it may be lost gradually over a period of few weeks or it may happen in matter of a few days. Physicians will try to solve the problem by nourishing kidney yin, and replenishing, activating and cooling down the blood. Common herbal ingredients include:

    dan pi Peony tree root bark Crotex Moutan Radicis
    sheng di Fresh rhemannia root Radix Rehmanniae
    chi shao Red peony root Radix Paeoniae Rubra
    dang gui Angelica root Radix Angelicae Sinensis
    nu zhen zhi Glossy privet fruit Fructus Ligustri Lucidi

    Renal and urinary protection during chemotherapy

    The side effects and toxicity of chemotherapy drugs remain the most important barriers to completing the chemotherapy regimen. Certain drugs damage the kidneys, especially if used in excessive amounts. TCM has a positive effect in treating kidney toxicity and bladder inflammation; treatment is based on clearing toxic heat, cooling down and arresting bleeding, and inducing urination to expel dampness. Common herbal ingredients include:

    che qian cao Plantian herb Herba Plantaginis
    che qian zi Plantain seed Semen Plantaginis
    zhu ling Chu ling Polyporus Umbellatus
    ze xie Oriental water-plantain root Rhizoma Alismatis
    bi xie Long yam Rhizoma Dioscroreae Septemlobae

    In actual situations, it is more usual to see multiple-system injuries and complicated patient presentations; therefore, an experienced physician is necessary for a detailed check up and an appropriate prescription.

    Plantian herb
    Plantain seed
    Chu ling

    Oriental water-plantain root
    Long yam
    Combined Spicebush root