By Erin Silver Piccola
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are the standard of care in Western biomedical cancer treatment. Depending on the tumor size, location, and level of metastasis, these therapies are used singly or in conjunction. Chemotherapy uses chemical agents to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy has the ability to treat widespread or metastatic cancer, while radiation therapy treats cancers confined to more specific areas. Chemotherapy is immunosuppressive and myelosuppressive, meaning it suppresses bone marrow function of producing all blood cell lines. A patient who has undergone chemotherapy is therefore more susceptible to infection, anemia, and bleeding disorders. In addition, there is often liver and kidney damage from the processing of toxic chemotherapy agents in the body.
The drugs used in chemotherapy attack cancer cells by targeting a certain part of the growth cycle. Because cancer cells grow faster then normal cells, this helps minimize damage to the rest of the body’s healthy tissue. Unfortunately, healthy tissue will still be damaged in chemotherapy. In particular, hair follicles, skin, and cells lining the gastrointestinal tract are some of the fastest growing cells in the human body and are therefore most sensitive to the effects of chemotherapy. This helps explain common side effects like hair loss, rashes, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Radiation therapy uses high energy x-rays to damage the DNA of cells, thereby killing the cancer cells, or at least stopping them from reproducing. Radiation also damages normal cells, but because normal cells are growing more slowly, they are better able to repair this radiation damage than are cancer cells. Side effects are directly related to the area of the body being treated and may include reddening of the skin, hair loss, nausea, diarrhea, mouth ulcers, fatigue, and weakness.
From a TCM perspective, chemotherapy and radiation therapy weaken the body’s reserves. Depending on the patient, there may be specific relative deficiencies, but overall, cancer and its treatment can deplete Qi, blood, yin, yang, and Jing. More specifically, chemotherapy drains the body’s Jing and Yuan Qi by attacking the marrow, as well as the body’s defenses (Wei Qi) by suppressing the immune system. Radiation creates heat and damages the yin. The side effects of these treatments reflect the presence of heat from vacuity (mouth ulcers, reddening and dryness of the skin, nausea and vomiting), Qi deficiency (diarrhea, fatigue, weakness, susceptibility to infection), blood vacuity (hair loss, fatigue, weakness, anemia), and Jing deficiency (hair loss, fatigue, weakness). The Eastern treatment approach to cancer patients, especially those enduring chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, is to nourish and maintain healthy tissue while encouraging the cleansing of heat and toxins from the body. Of course, treatment should also be geared towards amelioration of the various side effects of chemo and radiation therapy. Cancer patients can use food to take a proactive role in their own healing process. The proper food choices can not only help patients nourish their bodies throughout the treatment and recovery process, but can also help empower a patient to regain an element of control over his/her own well-being. Below are some key ingredients to be included in a cancer recovery diet. Carcinogenic diseases are thought to arise from an overly acidic environment within the body. Millet is an alkaline-forming grain, making it a good choice in an anti-cancer diet. Millet is also a rich source of fiber and silica, which detoxify the intestines, making it especially useful in the overall cleansing process that is a part of cancer treatment. The nature of millet is cool, sweet and salty. It strengthens the kidneys to help fortify the Jing, benefits the spleen and stomach to boost Qi, and builds yin fluids to help clear heat.
Mushrooms possess a classic Doctrine of Signatures in regards to their usefulness in the treatment and prevention of cancer; like cancer itself, mushrooms are parasitical, fungus-like, and fast-growing. Mushrooms have been extensively studied for their usefulness in the treatment and prevention of cancer. Mushrooms, especially reishi and shiitake, are rich in germanium, an oxygenating element that promotes healthy tissue repair. Mushrooms in general neutralize toxic residues in the body left over from eating too much meat. Recent research suggests that mushrooms actually have anti-tumor potential. Studies by Daniel Silva at the Cancer Research Laboratory in Indianapolis demonstrated the anti-tumor potential of one species of reishi mushroom, Ganoderma Lucidum. More recent studies at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences isolated a fraction of the shiitake mushroom responsible for its observed antitumor activity. These are just two of many studies that have been done to uncover the mechanism behind the power of mushrooms. Regardless of the science behind it, mushrooms have been used as a medicinal remedy for centuries to preserve human vitality and promote longevity. Shiitake mushrooms have a neutral, sweet nature. They benefit the stomach and are a natural source of interferon, a protein that induces immune response against cancer and viral infections.
Onions and garlic are rich sources of quercetin, a potent anti-cancer bioflavanoid. Onions inhibit malignant cell growth and garlic contains antiviral, antibiotic, and antifungal properties. Garlic is a very pungent member of the onion family, and should be minimized in those with heat signs. The onion family in general promotes warmth and moves energy in the body, which can be helpful with tissue repair. Onions also resolve blood stagnations, which can be a contributing factor in tumor growth, and detoxify the body. Among its many functions, garlic promotes circulation, removes obstruction, inhibits viruses and microorganisms associated with cancer and promotes growth of healthy intestinal flora.
Bok Choy is cooling and cleansing. Along with other green, leafy vegetables, it can help balance the heat left in the body from chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatment. Miso is fermented soybean paste that comes in many varieties and colors. Miso contains an amino acid pattern similar to meat along with some B12, making it a good source of protein. It also contains live lactobacillus (just like yogurt) that helps with digestion and assimilation. Miso is alkaline-forming in the body, which promotes resistance to disease and neutralizes some of the toxic effects of things like smoking, air pollution, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Studies in China have shown that Huang Qi/Astragali Rx can reduce recovery time from both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It is sweet and slightly warm and functions to raise yang Qi, tonify Qi of the spleen and lung, stop sweating (from Qi deficiency), and promote tissue healing by generating flesh and discharging pus.
Hong Zao/Jujubae Fructus, or Chinese Date, is sweet and neutral. It enters the spleen and stomach to tonify Qi of the middle burner, nourish blood, generate fluids, harmonize the middle and moderate toxic effects of other herbs.
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By Erin Silver Piccola