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Alternative Medicine: Essiac Never Proven Effective

separator There are some remedies that people use for cancer even though these remedies have never been proven to be effective. One of these is Essiac. Essiac is an herbal remedy that initially became popular in Canada in the 1920s. A nurse named Renee Caisse (Essiac spelled backwards) reported that a woman whose breast cancer had been cured by Essiac had given her, Caisse, the recipe. Caisse began giving Essiac to cancer patients in her clinic. She continued to do so for 40 years, even after the Cancer Commission, established under the Cancer Remedies Act of Ontario, investigated in 1938 and found “limited evidence” of Essiac’s effectiveness.

People who promote Essiac claim that it strengthens the immune system, improves appetite, helps reduce pain and improves quality of life. The original Essiac recipe contains four main herbs:

  • Burdock root
  • Indian rhubarb
  • Sheep sorrel
  • Inner bark of slippery elm

Burdock root and Indian rhubarb have been used as folk remedies to promote wound healing and to treat cancer. (Both of these herbs contain properties called anthraquinones, which are, interestingly enough, found in some chemotherapy drugs.) Slippery elm contains high concentrations of fatty acids. Many cough drops you buy in health food stores contain slippery elm. As for sheep sorrel, there’s very little information about it in studies.

In 1959, Caisse began working in partnership with an American physician, Dr. Charles Brusch. They added four herbs to the recipe—watercress, blessed thistle, red clover and kelp. This 8-ingredient mixture is marketed today under the name “Flor-Essence.” The original 4-ingredient recipe can still be found today under the original name.

Essiac was tested at Memorial Sloan Kettering and at the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. It did not show any anti-cancer activity in animals.

Today, there are companies that sell what they call “Essiac tea.” If you come across them as you search the Web for alternative treatments for cancer, be extremely cautious. Remember that there have been no studies proving that Essiac is effective. Also remember that even when people do take Essiac, they continue with their traditional cancer treatment.

If you decide that you do want to try Essiac, talk with your doctor about it. It’s always important for your doctor to know exactly what you’re taking, because herbs can sometimes have harmful interactions with other medications.

R. Moss, Cancer Therapy, “Essiac Tea,” 1992; Journal of the Canadian Medical Association. 1998.
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