The search for natural products as potential anticancer agents dates back to Papyrus Ebers, the Egyptian, who listed more than 700 drugs, mostly from plants, during the middle of the second millennium B.C.11 It is thus ironic that at the beginning of the 21st century, humankind is still ill-equipped to wage a war on its meanest enemy, cancer, despite the advent of modern allopathic medicine and the research that has been documented since the turn of 20th century. For centuries, our greatest health concern was quickly responding to swiftly spreading overt infectious diseases. The use of plants in the treatment of cancer has not been widely embraced by traditional medicine, has not been supported by documented cures, and has been limited mostly to treatment of easily detectable skin cancers. However, the popularity of herbal medicine as a natural supplement, particularly for the cure and prevention of cancer, has gained momentum since the beginning of the 20th century.
The conception and development of cancer is a slow process that progresses over many years and stages. Despite the complexity of cancer progression, there are many opportunities to intervene during its path of development and to wage battle with tumors. Fortunately, nature provides us with a wide variety of beneficial metabolites in the form of dietary and herbal supplements that can interact at one or many stages of the cancer progression, starting from the initial exposure to carcinogens through outright malignancy in the final step. These beneficial compounds include vitamins, essential fatty acids, amino acids, and a wide array of nonessential nutrients, called phytochemicals. According to dietary guidelines advocated by the American Cancer Society and the U.S. National Cancer Institute, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables provides the first line of defense against disease initiation in general and cancer in particular.12 There is also extensive literature covering the importance of nutritional supplements such as vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids in the prevention and cure of cancer. The other substances in fruits and vegetables are nonnutritional phytochemicals. Some of these phytochemicals, like flavonoids, offer several-fold better protection than the vitamins. However, it is difficult to provide all of the friendly chemical agents through dietary sources alone. Herbal supplements are therefore vital to fill this void and provide optimum levels of a broad range of beneficial ingredients.
These phytochemical anticancer supplements can be categorized broadly into three groups, based on where they interrupt the cancer formation process:
Supplements that nourish and build up the immune system, enhancing its anticancer surveillance function to prevent cancers in the first place and to help the body fight existing cancers.
Supplements that are antioxidants, scavenging free radicals before they reach target sites and initiate carcinogenesis. These compounds also activate enzymes that break down carcinogens, reducing them to harmless compounds.
Supplements that directly attack the cancer and fight for remission and cure.
In reality, however, the boundaries between the anticancer supplements in these three groups are not distinct. Rather, these phy tochemical supplements show a great deal of overlap in their beneficial effects, and most often they constitute a three-pronged approach.
Folklore in different cultures around the world provides a valuable source of information regarding the use of herbal supplements in cancer treatment. Many of these "traditional" cancer treatments have come into practice since the beginning of the 20th century, even though there was no absolute evidence that these herbal supplements could cure cancer. When some of these unconventional natural treatments became popular, they were challenged by the medical establishment, which vigorously condemned them as ineffectual and unproven quackery. Some of the therapies, like Hoxsey and essiac (see Sections 20.3.2 and 20.3.4), ignited national movements, with supporters of herbal medicine on one side, demanding the right to choose in health care decisions, and agencies of organized medicine on the other side preventing unconventional medicine for lack of documented evidence for their efficacy. The U.S. bans the use of some of these therapies as cancer treatments, even though they are legal in some other countries. Nevertheless, these unproven treatments are still being used by desperate cancer patients everywhere. A brief history of some of the popular unconventional herbal medicines is given in the following subsections.
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