Cancer. The very word can strike fear in the heart—and unfortunately, it touches many of us at some point in our lives, whether directly or indirectly through family and friends.
But cancer… and herbs? What role can herbs possibly play in a big, scary, potentially deadly disease like that?
If you’re faced with a cancer diagnosis, what can you do to take control of your journey and feel empowered?
Just as important, what steps can you take to help prevent cancer in the first place?
These are just some of the issues covered in today’s episode with Chanchal Cabrera—an herbalist with 35 years of clinical practice who specializes in holistic oncology. It was so good! And Chanchal’s new book, Holistic Cancer Care, needs to be on everyone’s bookshelf. It’s an impressive and helpful book for anyone who’s ever been touched by cancer, and even those who want to prevent it.
By the end of this episode, you’ll know:
► What is patient-centered medicine, and why is it so vitally important when crafting a treatment plan?
► Is it true that lymphatic herbs shouldn’t be used by cancer patients? Why or why not?
► Why sunscreen doesn’t give you the protection you might think it does (and what you can do instead)
► How can herbal medicine be included in cancer care, and what are some specific herbs that have been researched for this purpose?
► Depending on the treatments selected and the cancer itself, patients may suffer with radiation burns and/or neuropathic pain. As a listener, you’ll also receive free access to not one, but two downloadable recipe cards from Chanchal for soothing herbal creams.
For those who don’t already know her, Chanchal is a medical herbalist and has been in clinical practice for 35 years with a specialty in holistic oncology. She is the author of Fibromyalgia: A Journey towards Healing and her latest book, Holistic Cancer Care: An Herbal Approach to Preventing Cancer, Helping Patients Thrive during Treatment, and Minimizing the Risk of Recurrence, launched in April. She held the faculty chair in Botanical Medicine at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in New Westminster 2004-2016. She serves on the board of advisors of Dominion Herbal College in Burnaby, on the editorial board of Medical Herbalism clinical newsletter, and she publishes widely in professional journals and lectures internationally on medical herbalism, nutrition, and health.
Chanchal is also a certified Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing) practitioner, a certified Master Gardener and a certified Horticulture Therapist. She lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia where she and her husband manage Innisfree Farm and Botanic Garden, a 7 acre internationally registered botanic garden specializing in food and medicine plants, and where they host apprenticeships in sustainable food production and herbal medicine. The farm also hosts Gardens without Borders, a federally registered not-for-profit society established to run the botanic garden and provide horticulture therapy.
I’m beyond thrilled to share our conversation with you today!
-- TIMESTAMPS --
Herbal Cream for Radiation Burn
This cooling, soothing, and healing cream will promote tissue repair, inhibit infection, and minimize scarring.
Herbal Lotion for Neuropathic Pain
This is a rich and creamy formula that soothes and numbs the skin. St. John’s wort and gotu kola both have a nerve-healing, restorative action, while the cayenne and aconite inhibit pain impulse transmission. Magnesium gel is cooling and soothing, vitamin E is anti-inflammatory, and the essential oils are numbing, cooling, and pain relieving.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Hello and welcome to the Herbs with Rosalee Podcast, a show exploring how herbs heal as medicine, as food and through nature connection. I’m your host, Rosalee de la Forêt. I created this Channel to share trusted herbal wisdom so that you can get the best results when relying on herbs for your health. I love offering up practical knowledge to help you dive deeper into the world of medicinal plants and seasonal living.
Each episode of the Herbs with Rosalee Podcast is shared on YouTube, as well as your favorite podcast app. Also, to get my best herbal tips as well as fun bonuses, be sure to sign up for my weekly herbal newsletter at the bottom of this page. Okay, grab your cup of tea and let’s dive in.
Wow! This interview with Chanchal was so good and covers so many important issues, whether it’s about holistic cancer care, the benefits of sunlight or even the controversy surrounding lymphatic herbs. Her new book, Holistic Cancer Care, needs to be on everyone’s bookshelf. It’s an impressive and helpful book for anyone who’s ever been touched by cancer, and even those who want to prevent it.
Chanchal is a medical herbalist and has been in clinical practice for 35 years with a specialty in holistic oncology. She’s the author of Fibromyalgia: A Journey Toward Healing, and her latest book, Holistic Cancer Care: An Herbal Approach to Preventing Cancer, Helping Patients Thrive During Treatment and Minimizing the Risk of Recurrence, launched in April.
She held the faculty chair in Botanical Medicine at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in New Westminster from 2004-2016. She serves on the board of advisors of Dominion Herbal College in Burnaby on the editorial board of Medical Herbalism clinical newsletter and she publishes widely in professional journals and lectures internationally on medical herbalism, nutrition and health. Chanchal is also certified in Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing), is a certified Master Gardener and a certified Horticultural Therapist.
She lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where she and her husband manage Innisfree Farm & Botanic Garden, a 7-acre internationally registered botanic garden, specializing in food and medicinal plants, and where they host apprenticeships in sustainable food production and herbal medicine. The farm also hosts Gardens without Borders, a federally registered not-for-profit society established to run the botanical garden and provide horticulture therapy.
Welcome to the Herbs with Rosalee Podcast, Chanchal.
Thank you. It’s great to be with you, finally!
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Finally, yes! I am so looking forward to having you on the show. We connected years ago at the—I can’t remember the name of it now—Botanicals at the Beach or a Northwest Herbal gathering. That was lovely. When I saw that you’re writing a book, Holistic Cancer Care, I just jumped on it. You announced it last fall and I immediately wrote back and said I hope to have you on the show. Now, that I’ve seen the book, it is absolutely phenomenal. It’s such a gem and it’s going to be a treasured resource that’s going to help so many people. I can imagine the work that went into it and I’m so grateful. I’m really looking forward to talking all about the book, but before we do that I thought we could start by hearing a little bit more about you and how you found yourself on the herbal path.
Gosh, I almost could say, Rosalee, that I don’t know if I was ever not on the herbal path. My first garden I was about three years old and I had one of those big, old white stone sinks that my dad set up with some soil. I put nasturtiums in. I grew nasturtiums and they bloomed. I was so excited and I got to eat them. Although I didn’t really liked vegetables at that time, but I was going to eat my flowers.
As a young girl, I grew up in the countryside and quite remote, actually, in West Wales. I had a pony because everybody there had a pony. It wasn’t a fancy thing to have a pony, just a little foal and pony. I would take that pony and go off riding for the day and pick flowers and press them and the look up their Latin names. I had old scrapbooks—several scrapbooks with pressed flowers in their Latin name. I was like eight or nine years old. Unfortunately, my mom cleared them out one day in a move and they went. That was my start. I was always interested in plants. I always talked to the fairies at the bottom of the garden.
When I was about 14, my dad got quite sick. He consulted with David Hoffmann who was a new grad at the time and David was very gracious. My dad told David that I was interested in herbs and plants, and could David sort of take me under his wing a little bit. So I went and watched David pouring out tinctures. David came to the farm—my parents had a small farm—and helped my dad identify some of the plants, which he went on for almost another 40 years picking for himself.
I got my start very early. I didn’t know that you could be a herbalist. Obviously, David was a herbalist, but I never really clocked that that could be my choice. I ended up finishing high school. I’m going to live in India. I was in India for almost two and a half years. I worked with—I traveled a lot extensively all around the country alone, which was quite formative. Then I landed in a TB clinic in Dharamshala—near Dharamshala in the north. It was a TB clinic for Tibetan refugees. I didn’t know at the time that seroconversion was an incredibly exciting thing to experience with TB. You’re not meant to get seroconversion in modern medicine, but hey, they were achieving that with traditional Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicines.
It was sufficiently interesting to me to realize that between my dad’s experience, my love of plants and what I could see in that clinic—and I was just a general helper. I slept on a bedroll in a corner and I had chapatis and dal twice a day as a volunteer, basically, in this clinic. It was exciting enough for me to say that there really may be something here for me, so I went back to England in my early twenties and looked at lots of different schools for Chinese medicine, osteopathic medicine, homeopathy and I landed on herbal medicine. I kept coming back to the herb. It just felt like really—no pun intended—but a really grounding thing, really rooted in a way, so I went to herb school in my early twenties and never looked back.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
What eventually brought you over to North America?
That was love. I met a fellow. He went back to India in my—I finished herb school, started a clinic actually in Glasgow and I ended up going back to India just for a month to go to a meditation camp. I met a fellow there who was actually from Vancouver--South American but living in Vancouver. We just became pals and penpals for quite awhile. Finally, he said, “I’m going to go to South America for the winter. Would you like to come with me?” I’m like, “Yeah.” I’m in Glasgow and I’m not loving being in Scotland in the ‘80s. It was not as it is today and I just took the opportunity to leave the UK and strike out in a new world. It was very exciting to land in Vancouver, 1988 I came into Vancouver. Of course, there was a lot of native healers doing traditional, sort of Shamanic medicine, mostly underground. There were a few TCM practitioners, but it wasn’t licensed. Naturopathic medicine had just been licensed in British Columbia and so there were no Western herbalists at all. None.
I well remember a very leading naturopath at the time. I had one contact from Scotland. A practitioner in Scotland knew a naturopath in Vancouver, so I had a lunch with that gentleman shortly after landing in Vancouver. I remember it so well him saying to me, “You can’t practice as a herbalist in Canada. It is illegal. You will be shut down. You’ll have to go to naturopathic school.” At that time Bastyr had offered me a two-year fast track, which I don’t think they offer anymore, but even that for me, I had zero funds. I had no way to get student loans in North America so I did not take up that offer. I continued to do my work and practice and worked within my scope. I have been allowed to do that without having that naturopathic license. I’m here to say that herbal medicine can be a viable profession and a viable career choice.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
You really practice herbalism in so many beautiful ways. I wonder if you’d just mention Innisfree Farm and just what your world looks like today.
I had a very conventional herb school training, very Western medical model, very biomedical. You learn how to read bloods and even do blood draws ourselves. In the UK, we were licensed for that. Lots of constituents and herb/drug interactions and all of that. It was wonderful, of course, and I draw upon that everyday in clinic, but when I had been in practice about 15 years, I realized—I hope nobody take this the wrong way—but I actually discovered I was bored. Maybe “bored” isn’t quite the right word but I wasn’t stretched anymore. I wasn’t learning in the clinic anymore. I knew that I could help somebody or herbs could help somebody with menopause or asthma or eczema. That was, of course, incredibly gratifying and I stretched myself in other ways by setting up retailing and manufacturing, and education services, and all kinds of ancillary things.
As a clinician, I had reached a point after about 15 years when I needed some new challenge. So I took myself back to school and I did a Master of Science in Herbal Medicine at the University of Wales and that was a huge challenge academically and just fitting it into life.
For me, personally, there were two big things that came out of that. One was an understanding of using herbs in cancer which has led to recently writing this book. The second thing that happened in the Master’s program that really changed the way that I approached herbal medicine was that I had an opportunity—I am talking now over 20 years ago—I had an opportunity to take a plant spirit journey with Ayahuasca from South America. I did it in a very, very intensive setting with just myself and the ayahuasquero, the Shamanic practitioner, on a 10-day, one-on-one retreat in silence, in fasting mode, really out in the bush in a cabin. Super intense. It wasn’t, “Hey, Saturday night. Let’s go and party.” Not at all. It was extremely profound experience and it completely changed the way I relate to herbs. It actually enabled me to slow down enough to listen to the herbs.
Instead of imposing this top-down educational model I’d been inculcated with, I reframed the whole approach to herbal medicine which was a much more inquiry-based and much more curiosity-based approach to herbs. That for me led me straight out of graduate school into yet another qualification, another training which was in horticulture therapy. The work I do now is a blend of Western biomedical model clinical herbalism in a very medical sense, really. I’m definitely working with blood work and scans, drugs and all these things, mostly in cancer care.
The other aspect of my work is very much about being in the gardens, being outside with the plants, both myself and also my patients. I work really hard now. I’m trying to deepen people’s relationship with plants. Fundamentally, behind all of that, I see the role of a herbalist as an incredible opportunity to connect people with plants in such a way that they actually care enough about the environment the plants grow in to do something active to help the environment. Really, I see herbalism as an extremely effective form of activism and I consider myself an environmental warrior, an environmental activist through my herbal medicine work.
Although my work is quite conventional, in the sense of I’m talking to doctors a lot and writing up medical reports, every single patient in my practice, whether they want it or not, every single patient gets a tea. It’s a custom blended tea. It’s actual herbs, not a tea bag. It’s not fine cut sift. It’s actual pieces, most of which I’m growing or wildcrafting. I grow and wildcraft well over half the herbs for the teas now. People have to actually see plant material and engage with it as part of their healing journey. My hope is not only will they become well and healthy and healed, but that that will waken them up to the importance of plants along that journey and the value of plant and the need to preserve the environment in which the plants grow, and to use them responsibly and practice sustainably and all those things.
My hidden agenda—maybe not so hidden—is about saving—gosh, this sounds a bit highfalutin, doesn’t it? Saving the planet. Is that my job? I don’t know, but helping people to engage in activities that may help us to survive better on this planet through the medium of herbal medicine.
For me, it’s a lot about drinking their teas, but also possibly—I do a lot of forest bathing therapy works. I teach people to walk quietly in the woods, to listen to the trees, to sit with the plants, just to be more appreciative of nature as part of the healing journey, not just ingesting herbs, but nature as part of the healing journey. I’ve been in Japan, trained in shinrin yoku, I took my certification as a horticulture therapist and I find those tools to be extremely powerful in the work.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
I’m curious, Chanchal. When people come to you as patients or clients, do they know what they’re getting into? Are they coming to visit you as an herbalist and as an earth-centered being? Or is it kind of like end-of-the-road? What does a person who comes to see you—what’s on their mind? Why do they choose you?
Great question. I would say that well over 80% of my work is cancer-based, so most of my patients now have cancer. In most of those cases, I could say that they have come to me after trying other things, either conventional and/or complimentary medicines. Most of my work now is by referral. I don’t market my clinics. It’s all word of mouth and it’s mostly referrals from other practitioners, meaning cases that they’ve got stuck on or need further ideas and inputs.
My caseload is very complex and those people are often in quite dire straits. They’re quite desperate. They’re in pain, in fear and suffering. They’re often financially challenged because they’ve been sick for a long time, haven’t been able to work, etc. When they come to me, they’re typically quite ready to do the work. They’ve typically been prepped and primed by previous experiences to be ready to do the work. Occasionally, I do get someone who is freshly diagnosed. Of course, what also happens is you’ll have a client who maybe comes for menstrual issues or eczema or whatever, you help them and then 10 years later, they get this dreadful diagnosis and they’ll come back to whichever practitioner it was that helped them with whatever else they had.
Often, I’m working with people who are quite committed to the herbal path and quite willing to do what it’s going to take. It still takes a bit of encouragement, of course. We ask a lot of our patients in terms of taking stuff, but also doing things. Asking them to walk in the woods for an hour a day is actually really hard prescription for a lot of people, so we customize everything to each individual.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Thank you for that introduction to your life and how you’re practicing now. I’m really excited to talk about your book, Holistic Cancer Care. There are so many gems. This book is just so incredibly ranging from—somebody would get a lot out of it if they wanted to prevent cancer and stay healthy. Someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer will get a lot out of this book, and also, there’s so much in there for practitioners too so it’s very wide-ranging. I really love the opening pages and talking about this umbrella of holistic oncology versus conventional cancer, what is it to be a tumor-centered approach versus a patient approach. I’m wondering if you would expand on that a bit for us.
A lot of words get thrown around and everybody has a slightly different interpretation. Holistic – let’s just start with holistic herbs first. Notice I’m pronouncing the “h.” That is because we use the whole plant with the “h.” In my practice and in the book, I work very hard to explain how it is that herbalists use plant medicines. Research uses isolates, purify even synthetic compounds, administered in ways which a clinical herbalist would never use into animals that had been bred to have cancers and so on. There’s a huge gap.
I’m being a bit cheeky saying we use the whole herb including the “h.” I actually should give credit for that little joke to Keith Robertson who is a herbalist in Scotland who first said that when he was teaching out here, and someone asked him about the pronunciation. It’s kind of tongue in cheek because it’s true. A holistic practitioner might use isolates. For example, really clear example, Artemisia annua, one of the most popular and most widely used herbs right now in cancer care, also showing great benefit in various blood-borne parasitic conditions including Lymes. The research is very, very clear that whole herb extract has greater value than isolates. If you just use artemisinin or artesunate, which is being injected intravenously now, this is obviously not holistic – taking an isolate, a singular sesquiterpene lactone from the plant and injecting it has nothing to do with traditional herbal medicine. The research again, is very, very compelling now about how the flavonoids make the sesquiterpenes made bioavailable.
I’m not saying artemisinin doesn’t work. The research is very good. What I am saying is it would be better if it was given with the whole plant. That indeed is what I will do now. I will use isolates because there’s compelling research. The patients may have read some of that research, or they may want to go and talk to their doctors about what they’re doing and having that research on hand is very useful. But is very incomplete, inadequate, so I will then give the whole plant alongside or I even will find a supplement brand that has isolate and whole herb. I’m trying to mimic nature as much as possible while not discarding the contemporary research, which is very strong. It’s very mechanistic, but it’s still very strong and compelling.
As I was writing the book, I tangled myself up again and again in trying to make that leap from, “Here’s all the research and here’s what we see in clinic.” At the end of the day, evidence-based medicine is what it’s really all about. I can tell you that in the book, every single thing that I write about in that book I’ve seen and done in clinic. I left out a bunch of important and interesting stuff because it’s not my experience. It’s not my lived experience in my clinic and I felt that was an honesty place for me to be able to say, “You may not agree with everything I’m saying in here, but this is my experience.”
Holistic, to me, doesn’t just mean “trying a bunch of different disciplines.” It’s about addressing the person. It might be that you’re only doing one therapeutic modality, but it’s holistic if you consider all the implications for that person. Holistic doesn’t mean that you have to have 10 different modalities to offer a patient. It’s about are you treating a disease? Or are you treating a person?
The person-centered or patient-centered approach means, “Okay, you’ve got a diagnosis of cancer. How does that show up in your life? What does that mean? How does that affect your day-to-day experience? How do you integrate that into your psyche? How does that affect your spiritual life? By the way, we have some strategies that we might be able to offer that might mitigate either the cancer itself or some of the side effects of other treatments,” and those things. But what’s really interesting is 10 women with breast cancer are going to have 10 different lived experiences of that cancer. If you just treat the cancer, then you will get—in Canada, you’ll probably get Adriamycin and doxorubicin. America has left that combo behind because it doesn’t really work, so they might get carboplatin and paclitaxel. That’s assuming that all those 10 women have basically the same cancer.
Just because it’s estrogen receptive or HER2neu positive breast cancer does not mean they will have the same experience. Some of them have pre-existing heart disease or risk of heart disease and they shouldn’t be taking the doxorubicin. Some of them have got life challenges. Maybe they’ve got little children, they’re a single parent and they can’t be flat on the couch with chemo. Maybe that’s not their best choice. Tumor-based medicine gives more or less one-size-fits-all, you’re a cog in the machine. Whereas, patient-centered medicine, regardless of what medicine is, it’s about, “Who are you? How is this disease showing up for you? What will serve you the best?” It’s really about the patient.
That ideally, should bring us around to what I like to call “collaborative medicine,” which is bringing all the players to—wouldn’t it be nice—a round table to talk about everything that could be offered for this individual. That would include their oncologist, their nurse practitioner, their massage therapist, their husband or wife or support person, their herbalist—oh, and the patient! Maybe they have an opinion about what will work or not work or how they could implement some of these things. A patient-centered approach, we go back to that very old quote about it is more important to know what kind of person has a disease than what kind of disease a person has. So simple, so profound.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
You must like quotes because you have some excellent quotes throughout the book.
I collect quotes. I have a whole laundry list of them.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
You do. I was wondering. I was like, “How did she find these amazing quotes?”
I collect them from all over.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
They are definitely well done in the book. Next, there’s just so many gems in the book. I’m just so excited for everybody to get their hands on a copy. There are just some things that jumped out at me. Maybe we should talk about that because I hear people talk about it a lot, often with questions. One of those is this correlation between sunlight—I don’t want to say it like that—but sunlight, cancer, sunscreen – that whole, big ball of mess there.
It is a bit of a mess. I do have a little section on it in the book because it does come up a lot. I think what we need to consider here is that, we, as humans, we make Vitamin D from the action of sunlight on cholesterol in the skin. If we don’t get sunlight on our skin, we would need to get our Vitamin D through our diet. In the fat averse world that we live in today where fat in the diet is considered to be somehow bad, many, many people don’t get enough Vitamin D in their diet because we’re not eating a lot of animal fats. Even if we eat the animal fats, it may not have much Vitamin D in because of what the animals are fed on today. Being fed grain makes a very different end product than eating grass.
As people, generally, we tend to be—at least in North America—we tend to be Vitamin D deficient, especially in these northern climes. You’re in the Pacific Northwest as I am. It’s a rainy day out there. Even if it was sunny, the sun isn’t at an angle to actually get into the skin probably to make the Vitamin D, and it’s cold so we’re bundled up. We have little to no sun exposure for many months of the year, and when we do have strong sun and could be making Vitamin D, we wear sun block!
The problem with sun block is that it does block the superficial surface rays, but it doesn’t stop the deeper rays from penetrating. It is in fact those superficial rays that give you the reddening that is the early warning that you’re going to do deeper damage if you stay out in the sun. So if you wear a sun block, you can stay out longer but you’re not anymore protected. You may not burn at the surface, but the deeper DNA damage can still be happening and you don’t know it because you’re not turning red. You’re not getting the warning to go in from the sun.
The best protection against the sunburn—and yes, obviously, sunburns are a big risk for skin cancer—the best protection is a light tan. Building up exposure little by little in the beginning of the year, at the beginning of the day, building up your sun exposure so that you build some color in the skin and don’t burn. That’s the best way to do it. If you wear sun block then you won’t burn on the surface. You may still be doing deeper damage down below and you’re not going to make enough Vitamin D.
Vitamin D has huge implications in inhibiting cancer. There is an argument to be made. I’m not saying it’s all true all the way down the line, but there is an argument to be made that one of the reasons we’re having such a rise in cancer in society as a whole is because we’re not getting enough Vitamin D, a.k.a. “enough sun exposure.” We’ve become sun averse. We live indoors. We exercise indoors. We spend hours in front of computer screens, not playing out in the sun. As a whole, we’re getting less and less sun exposure, and as we have less, we’re more vulnerable when we do go in the sun. If you haven’t built up that base tan and then you go. You have two weeks holiday a year. You go to Mexico and you fry on the beach is probably not a good plan.
I encourage my patients not to use sun block. I encourage them to build a slow and careful tan, not burning. If they do go somewhere really hot or they’re at risk of more sun exposure than might be good for them, then I recommend that they stay out of the sun. Wear a big hat. Wear long sleeves. Wear clothing that is filtering the sun. Stay in the shade.
I’m not at all a fan of sun block. I will confess that I use a sun block myself on my face because I’m vain enough not to want some of the brown marks I get from the sun. But that aside, I recommend people actually get sun exposure. I’m a big believer in sunbathing actually and I prescribe sunbathing to people.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Thank you for all that. I feel very validated because that’s what I do – the base tan. I am pretty much a water baby. I love to be in the rivers, the lakes, in the ocean for many hours at a time. I started wearing—now, it’s pretty common to find swim shirts and swim pants. I wear swim shirts and swim pants. I admit that I feel a little silly sometimes being that covered. Another big pull to do that was I would spend a lot of time in Mexico and we go to nature reserves and there’s a “no sunscreen” rule. Even natural sunscreens are very detrimental. I often swim in natural bodies of water where it’s my own alpine lakes, my own rivers—not that I own them, but in my valley. I don’t like the idea of those chemicals being in our natural waterways too.
You bet. We have a pond on our property and people who live on the farm here in the summer are allowed to swim in it. It’s absolutely lovely, but we ask people to shower first, to rinse off. Rinse their hair even if they’ve got hair products in.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
That’s wonderful. I would love more people to start wearing swim shirts and swim pants so I feel less silly, but I’m very committed to it. I love being able to out for a long time without burning. Thank you for all of that. Chanchal, I think there’s probably a lot of people wondering what herbs are for cancer. You could probably relate that that is not an uncommon question, right? People want to know what herbs are for cancer. I’m just going to throw that can of worms at you.
Well, I could throw right back and say, “Hmm. What herb isn’t for cancer?” Realistically, there are a few herbs that have hit the mainstream news. We’ve already mentioned Artemisia annua, Chinese wormwood or sweet annie. Very, very compelling research specifically in cancer care as a cytotoxic. It’s targeting the cells which are rapidly reproducing, have a rapid metabolism – that’s a cancer cell. Other herbs that are more generally beneficial will be things like the turmeric, green tea. Those are the more classic generic herbs that could be used for lots of situations, but including cancer—those are not specifically cytotoxic. They’re supportive to the general field of cancer care. What is really interesting as a clinician—and I tried very hard to get this into the book—is about the cytotoxic herbs. They are poisons and they are not for general use. They are targeted to cells that are replicating too fast.
The book was very challenging to write because I was contracted to write a book that the general public would read and enjoy and gain from, but what I found interesting was writing something more for practitioners. Honestly, there are some very good books out there for the general public, for the patient. There are some really excellent books already and I didn’t know how much I wanted to add to that repertoire, really.
The book is really two halves. The first part is more for the motivated patient or the care support people. The second half is really more for clinicians. In there, going into the cytotoxic herbs, now we’re getting some really interesting herbs that you may be familiar with, but maybe not in this context. I’m using things like bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. I’m using it topically as an escharotic. Now, this is incredibly controversial because I am not at all promoting self-care with black salve. That is not what I’m talking about, but really carefully managed topical applications of bloodroot for certain skin conditions, certain skin cancers can be really effective. Just to give you context, the creams that the doctors give for actinic keratosis and basal cell carcinoma, burn the skin, open the skin, make you bleed and cause substantial liver enzyme elevations and red blood cell deficiencies. Really toxic cream.
With my herbs, we can still see the skin break open and bleed. It’s still a dramatic thing to do, but there’s none of that systemic toxicity happening. The patient gets to make a choice – do I want to burn with poison or do I want to burn without the poison? Sanguinaria is an interesting herb that a lot of herbalists have become a bit afraid of and kind of let go of. I use a lot of Thuja, cedar, Pacific cedar, Thuja occidentalis or Thuja plicata. Again, that is a herb that has fallen out of favor with a lot of herbalists because it has some toxicity. It is cytotoxic and that’s why we’re using it in cancer, but it does have thujone and that could cause some brain complications. However, when you really drill down into the dosing, you’d have to take an awful lot of the plant material to do any actual harm.
This is what I kept finding – the herbs that have been labeled “poison,” yes they work as cytotoxics. They target cells that are rapidly replicating and they kill them! But the dose to do systemic damage is really very different than the dose you need for clinical applications. Even something like Pacific yew. Pacific yew is a very interesting plant because the medicine, Taxol, and various derivatives of Taxol come from the Pacific yew bark and indeed other species of yew. It’s now a semi-synthetic drug and is very, very successful for solid tumors for a short window and then people build up resistance.
But in the plant itself, Taxol is one of 27 currently identified diterpenes and several of the other diterpenes inhibit the resistance. If you have a patient taking Taxol, you absolutely want to use yew extract to delay the resistance to allow them to use less drugs and get more effect, and less side effects because it stays in the target cell. It doesn’t spill over to cause collateral damage. Most people think of yew as dreadfully dangerous and super toxic and don’t touch it. It’s actually not true in the right circumstances, the right kind of yew for the right person and the right dose.
To me, the herbal medicine, I would say that a big mistake that I made with herbal medicine over my early years of practice was to underestimate what the herbs can do. To actually think that we were somehow ancillary or complimentary to some other more remarkable medicines, I think that was a big mistake. Herbal medicine is profoundly effective and profoundly potent. I really didn’t appreciate that I think until I started working in the cancer world about 20 years ago. I’ve been in clinic over 35 years now – 15 years in general practice and 20 years in specialty with cancer. I am more and more and more astonished at what I see in herbal medicine and the outcomes that I see, the tumors shrinking and the side effects diminishing from the chemos. Wow! Herbs really work.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Hearing that, Chanchal, this is not the first time I felt it nor will it be the last, but there is a bit of a sadness that this information is not more widely known because how many more people could be benefiting from collaborative care on so many levels.
I feel really strongly that using the cytotoxic herbs, when you are an experienced clinician, you should be using these herbs and not letting them fall by the wayside. Writing the book was incredibly challenging because I could find some contemporary research on isolates and animal studies and cell lines. I certainly have access to the Eclectic literature from 100-150 years ago but there’s a huge gap in the middle of that, which is what are herbalists doing? If they are using these herbs, they jolly well not writing about them. I have to bridge from 150 years ago records and research up to contemporary, analytical reductionist research and find the evidence based from my clinical practice of how they’ve been used.
But there is—I could not find contemporary clinical literature books written by herbalists or naturopaths or other practitioners using these herbs in clinical practice. I found it quite shocking, actually, that we’ve lost that knowledge. Why? Are we not using them? I mean, they’re being taught in schools but nobody’s doing it or what. I just couldn’t find anybody writing about clinical use of these herbs.
I took a pun on it. I decided to put myself out there in the firing line and write that stuff because I believe that if you don’t use it, you lose it. The herbs work. They deserve to be celebrated and respected and used. For contemporary practitioners, they needed a resource to know how to do that and that’s what I hope I’ve been able to provide, at least an opening to that conversation.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
The herbal material in Holistic Cancer Care is very impressive. The herbs are woven throughout the book and then there’s a whole section of herbs too. One thing that I specially loved about that is your emphasis on dosage. You can always say you can tell a clinician from a researcher or whatever, but you can tell that somebody really uses the plants clinically by how much emphasis they put on the dosage and it’s there. You use more than a lot than—I was trained more in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda when I began, which often uses much larger dosages than Western herbalists, but I notice your dosages are quite substantial as well. There’s not the “Take a couple of drops of this.”
No. I have a little saying that big disease takes big medicine. Some of my patients are choosing to do complimentary herbal medicine instead of mainstream. Well, you know what? You got to take a lot. If you’re going to put this up against chemo, then you really need to do herbal medicine. I actually think that a mistake that many herbalists make is not taking enough of the medicine and expecting it to do something amazing.
I actually had a funny situation last week. I have a new volunteer in my garden program. We were having lunch. We serve lunch every week to the garden crew. She said to me that she had read something about using a herb. I don’t even know what her condition was. She didn’t even tell me that. She said, “I made this herbal tea and I took a cup a day for a week and nothing happened.” Wow! Really? It’s just extraordinary to me that people expect the herbs to solve all their problems in one cup a day of tea for a week. Now, granted, if you had indigestion and you drank a peppermint tea would help you in that moment. If you had insomnia and you drank some chamomile as strong as I drink it, you’d be knocked out, but most of the time you do need more medicine and more duration than a lot of people are willing to give. We all want quick fix these days and it doesn’t work that way.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
It is a confusing subject even commercially. One thing that drives me a bit bonkers is that you can buy capsules of powdered herbs and on the bottle it says, “Take one capsule twice a day.” That’s like you’re taking a gram of something that’s better often dosed at 10g a day, but that’s what it says on the bottle so that becomes what’s official.
The product have to be labeled on the basis of people doing stupid things so they underdose. I used to—I still do some consulting with the Ministry of Health here in Canada. We spent a long time in the early ‘90s looking at the regulations of herbal products in Canada. One of the things we talked about was that they actually require us to have dosing below therapeutic levels on the bottle because of people who say, “Oh, if a little bit is good, more is going to be better,” and they slug the whole lot back. Yes, most of the products that you buy, propriety branded products, probably you want to increase the dose from the bottle for most of them. As a clinician, you would do that. As a customer and not trained, you’ll probably follow the bottle. Herbalists using some of those branded products, we usually override the dosing strategies.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Another gem that I found very interesting in your book is talking about lymphatic herbs because this is another thing I see people have a lot of questions about. The concern is often lymphatic herbs and how it’s commonly said that they could possibly promote the spread of cancer. I’m wondering if you would speak to that.
It’s a real misunderstanding, actually, but I understand how it comes about because cancer does sometimes spread through the lymphatic system. In fact, when you do a biopsy or when they do surgery, they’re going to look for perilymph vascular spread along blood vessels and along the lymph vessels. Yes, it's certainly plausible that cells could leave your tumor, get into the lymphatic system and spread around the body. This is true. However, first of all, lymphocytes need access to their target tissues. In other words, if lymph doesn’t flow then you don’t deliver protein particles to the lymph nodes to wake up the lymphocytes to say, “Hey, we need you to come and do a job.” If you don’t have lymph flow, you’re actually nullifying a huge piece of your immune system. You have to expose the lymphocytes to the challenge for them to rise to that challenge. That’s #1 point.
Number two point is cancer is a living tissue. It is your tissue. It’s not an alien being that’s taken up residence. It grew in your body from your cells. It has a blood supply. It has blood going in and blood coming out that has actually very poor lymph drainage. Cancer cells, cancers, tumors don’t generally build a lot of lymph tissue. The lymph around the tumor will pick up fluids and drain it, but it’s not necessarily coming from the tumor itself. The blood vessels that bring—they grow fast. Angiogenesis is a big factor in development of cancer. You need more blood vessel to bring in the nutrients, the oxygen, the sugar that the cancer wants.
As soon as blood comes into a tissue, by definition, it’s going to leave again. There is a blood flow in and a blood flow out of a tumor. There is—there are weak walls to those blood vessels in the tumor. They grow so fast. They don’t have really good integrity. Fluids and cells can travel in and out quite readily across those blood vessels in the tumor, and that is how cells can break off a tumor, enter a blood vessel and get systemically distributed. A tumor also has a capsule and there is hydrostatic pressure in that capsule. It tends to push things into the blood vessels that have weak walls and that facilitates metastasis.
What I’m really trying to say is that there’s already blood in and blood out from a tumor. There has to be. If you think that stopping lymph flow is going to stop the spread of cancer, you’ve just forgotten that actually, there’s blood leaving that area as well. The way I approach it is you absolutely want lymph flow. You want to move lymph. You want to drain out stagnation or congestion from tissue cancer. In an energetic sense, it’s a place of congestion and stagnation. Any stagnant pond grows pond scum, so we want it clear. You want to drain it.
Your cancer is already, by the time you’re diagnosed, probably been in your body three to five years. So what do you think was happening in that time? You think there was no spread? Of course, there’s spread. If you have cancer, if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you already have systemic spread. I’m sorry this is a terrible shock to people, but it’s true because cancer is shedding cells all the time and they’re out there in the system. If your lymphocytes are working properly, then your immune system will take care of those stray cells and get rid of them. If there’s no flow in the lymph, you’re more likely to get metastasis actually, because your lymphocytes are not there to catch the damage.
I actively encourage lymph flow. I use cleavers. I use Ceanothus or red root. I use mullein. I do sweats with people, like steams and heating and skin brushing – all these things to actively encourage lymph flow. Lymphoma may be a slightly different discussion, but for the most part, cancer, as a whole, you absolutely want lymph flow. You want your lymphocytes engaged in this process and to do that, you need to expose them.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Thank you for that very clarifying and in-depth look at that. I really can’t say enough good things about Holistic Cancer Care. There are so many recipes in the book and formulas from many different perspectives. There’s a breast massage oil with pokeroot, speaking of lymphatics, teas and all with the dosages in there. We’ll be sharing a recipe from the book above this transcript. I wonder if there’s anything else you’d like to share with us before we say goodbye, Chanchal.
I think one of the things that happens when you get this diagnosis is that it knocks the stuffing out of people. They’re just in shock even though, intellectually, we all know that between 1 and 2 or 1 and 3 of us is going to get this diagnosis at some time in our life. It might be very small, just a little basal cell that can be taken off in the doctor’s office or it might be a huge, catastrophic diagnosis. Nonetheless, between one-third or to one half of us are going to have cancer in our lifetime, but somehow when we get this diagnosis, it still feels like how did that ever happen? People are very shocked and very vulnerable.
The medical system that we operate within, which of course, as we all know is a sickness care system, not a healthcare system, is incredibly disempowering to patients. Once you get this diagnosis, you’re on the conveyor belt. Most decisions are made for you with very little opportunity as a patient to have input or to really understand what your choices are or even that you have choices.
I guess my parting words would be—and I hope that the book has imparted some of this as well—is to feel more empowered to know how much you, as an individual, can do to resist cancer, to thrive during cancer and to prevent recurrence, how much you as a patient can do, and then for the practitioners, how much we have to offer the patients. I did not know that for a long time in clinic and it was a revelation when I realized that herbal medicine is so powerful that yes, absolutely, it has a role to play in cancer care.
I’m being careful how I word this because I don’t want people to think herbs will cure all cancers. That’s not what I am saying, but there is absolutely a role for herbal medicine and nutritional medicine and self-care in the cancer journey. Both before and right during your cancer journey, you can still be doing a huge amount to help yourself. If anything, I would really just like people listening to this to know how much they can do, how much power we have in this situation and take that power back for themselves, and engage in the process and not allow themselves to be a passive recipient of somebody else’s thoughts. You need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Thank you so much. That is a powerful ending and I completely got that from the book. From the opening page, you said take time when you get this diagnosis. I think that in itself is powerful. Have I mentioned that everyone should get this book? If I haven’t, everyone should get this book because, again, as you said Chanchal, cancer is something that affects all of us in one way or another. Again, I loved all of the recommendations on just staying healthy and there are so many formulas in there for our nervous system, for our heart and so many ways that we can take care of ourselves.
Thank you again. I can only imagine what a tremendous amount of work it was to put this book together. It’s truly going to just be an incredible reference and gem, and a transformational book for many people.
Thank you. I sincerely hope so.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Thanks again for being here with us, Chanchal.
Rosalee de la Forêt:
Thanks for being here. Don’t forget to download your beautifully illustrated recipe cards above this transcript. That’s right. There’s two of them this week. There is a recipe for an herbal lotion for neuropathic pain and an herbal cream for radiation burn. Also, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter, which is the best way to stay in touch with me, at the bottom of this page. You can also visit Chanchal directly at chanchalcabrera.com.
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Okay, you’ve lasted to the very end of the show which means you get a gold star and this random tidbit:
I really appreciated Chanchal’s thoughts on so much of what she shared, but especially on taking time once someone receives a cancer diagnosis.
I was in the room with my dad when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and I could just register the shock that was on his face as soon as the C word was mentioned. It was probably on mine too. Just as soon as he was diagnosed, literally, within the same breath, the doctor then just immediately rushed in and said that they could schedule the surgery the very next day. My dad asked him what is the success rate of this surgery. He typed in a few numbers for my dad’s chart and then he told him, “56%,” and then my dad just looked at me and, thankfully, I had enough presence to say, “No, thank you. We’re going to explore other options.”
Within the week, he was at a holistic cancer center and, later, he was a patient at the Mederi Foundation. He never got the surgery. He took a lot of herbs and was able to manage it all holistically. He sadly died last fall from a combination of heart failure and COVID, and that was 14 years after that diagnosis came in, which is not to say that no one should ever get surgery for cancer. Only that I’m glad we were able to take the time to explore his many options and then able to choose something that worked well for him.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Healand co-author of the bestselling book Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and has taught thousands of students through her online courses. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.