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Natural Products for
Cancer Patients
Separating Hope from Hype

Dr. Michael Murray
Michael T. Murray, ND


It has been a year since How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine was published. Our goal in writing this book was for it to serve as the authoritative blueprint for a comprehensive plan in dealing with cancer from a natural medicine perspective. While the book has received much accolades and moderate success in sales volume, I am very disappointed that it is not touching more lives.

While I have been blessed with the opportunity to speak to thousands of cancer patients, I have also been deeply saddened as I have heard so many cancer patients tell me of their use of products that in my opinion provide no significant benefit and only empty promises. I know there are far more people that are using these sorts of products than those who are following our program. In writing the book, we debated whether we should critique some of the products and treatments that are overly hyped. In the end, we decided that it was more important to highlight the positives of our program.

Our goal was to provide a valuable resource with the latest information on dietary and supplementation strategies to prevent cancer, along with the critical guidance the cancer patient desperately needs. We presented an evidence-based "natural" program unlike any other. We reviewed over 10,000 scientific studies in writing the book to provide proven recommendations on the proper use of vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other natural measures to fight cancer as well as enhance the effective of conventional cancer treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Two of my coauthors, Dr. Paul Reilly and Dr. Tim Birdsall, have worked in the trenches with thousands of cancer patients - they know what works and what does not. Yet, it seems that more people are drawn to products and programs that provide little scientific study or rationale but are marketed with wildly unsubstantiated claims. That saddens me.

The Medical Profession's Response to Our Book

During my year long book tour, my hope was buoyed by the tremendous response to the doctors and other medical professionals that have either read our book or attended one of my lectures. I spoke at several medical institutions in the last year, including the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. One of the other key goals of the book was for it to be a bridge between patients who utilize natural medicines and their oncologist. We did make some small inroads in this area, but we need to get it into more patients and more oncologists' hands.

Physicians were responsive to our book because it presents a rational approach without hype, but with tremendous hope. We believe that in the treatment of end-stage diseases like cancer, that sometimes heroic measures are definitely necessary in the form of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. We also believe that at all times it is critical to use the healing power of nature in the treatment of cancer. Failure to support the body, mind, and soul of cancer patients is one of the critical shortcomings of conventional oncology. Fortunately, we address this shortcoming by providing a program that incorporates not only nutritional support, but also recommendations on how to deal with the psychological, mental, and emotional aspects of cancer treatment.

My Frustration

Obviously, I am quite proud of the book, but I am extremely frustrated by its limited success. I am very much disappointed that cancer patients are putting their faith into unproven, potentially dangerous "natural" treatments instead of the program that we present. In Chapter 8, The Super Eight: Fighting Cancer through Key Natural Products, we highlighted what we considered to be the top natural products to battle cancer. These are listed in what we believe is their order of overall effectiveness. We based our ranking on five key criteria:

  • clinical evidence of effectiveness
  • scientific rationale
  • safety
  • compatibility with conventional therapies
  • our own clinical experience

At every lecture that I gave this year, I was asked about a handful of products that were not discussed in the book. My standard response was that if it was not mentioned in the book it did not necessarily mean that the product was without benefit, but that in our opinion it simply did not measure up to the natural products that we did discuss. My professional life is centered on natural medicine, I am keenly aware of a product's merits and shortcomings. Myself and my coauthors took the process of evaluating products to put into the book with great responsibility. Cancer is a serious disease. We wanted to provide recommendations that would provide the greatest benefit.

Table 1. The Super 8 Natural Medicines for Cancer Treatment

      1. Proteolytic enzyme complexes
      2. Curcumin (from Curcuma longa)
      3. Quercetin
      4. Maitake D- or MD-fraction
      5. PSK/PSP
      6. Polyerga
      7. Modified citrus pectin
      8. Ip6 (Inositol hexaphosphate)

    † Note, while these "Super 8" are important, they certainly do not represent the only products that we recommend nor do they all have to be used in a cancer patient in most circumstances.

Proteolytic Enzymes vs. Unproven Products

To illustrate the value of our recommendations over marketing hype, let's first take a look at proteolytic enzymes (or proteases) - various enzymes that digest (break down into smaller units) protein. These enzymes include the pancreatic proteases chymotrypsin and trypsin, bromelain (pineapple enzyme), papain (papaya enzyme), and Serratia peptidase (the "silk worm" enzyme).

We chose proteolytic enzyme complexes (e.g., Zymactive or Wobenzyme) as our number 1 natural product because we felt that it offered the greatest benefit to the widest range of cancer patients. Good clinical studies have shown that proteolytic enzymes improves the general condition of patients and their quality of life, and produces slight to modest increases in life expectancy.1 For example, let's take a look at a study in patients with stage 3 colon cancer. Now, normally this stage of colon cancer has a very poor outcome with conventional medicine alone. In the study, 166 patients received a mixture of proteolytic enzymes along with a combination of chemotherapy drugs while 99 matched patients served as the control group. The results were astounding. The group receiving the proteolytic enzymes displayed a three year increase in survival rate. That is absolutely REMARKABLE.

O.K., so based on the results of this trial and others we see that mixtures of proteolytic enzymes can dramatically improve the odds of beating cancer. Now, can the products that are overly hyped such as Graviola, PolyMVA, Cesium, Essiac, or MGN3 provide that documentation? No, and that is where it gets difficult for me. Why would anyone in their right mind choose a program or product that has not been documented to provide clinical benefit over something that has?

I could choose any of these products to pick on, but since I was just got an e-mail from a son of a man with stage 3 colon cancer asking me about Graviola, I will focus on this product.

Graviola refers to the plant Annona muricata - a small, upright evergreen tree that grows primarily in the Amazon. The medicinal preparations are made from the bark, leaves, roots, fruit, and fruit seeds. It is the leaves and stem that are recommended to cancer patients. Numerous websites and marketing brochures will cite the research on the anticancer compounds in graviola known as acetogenins.

While it is true that these compounds have anticancer effects it comes with a price. Keep in mind that many conventional drugs used in chemotherapy come from plants, such vincristine and vinblastine from the periwinkle plant and paclitaxel from the Pacific yew tree. Would it be appropriate to make these powerful drugs available over-the-counter? These drugs work as cytotoxic agents directly poisoning rapidly dividing cells. While the major goals of the natural products we highlight in the book is similar (destruction of the cancer), the path that we chose to recommend is a little different. Instead of targeting cancer cell destruction by toxic means like chemotherapy agents, we are trying to engage the body's own cancer fighting mechanisms. When chemotherapy is necessary it should be done with controlled dosages of approved cytotoxic agents and not via ingesting a potentially toxic herb.

So, am I saying that graviola is dangerous. If the product contains acetogenins it is. The actual level of acetogenins in these products is probably very low, similar to the taxol quantity in Pacific yew bark. Although acetogenins apparently have more specificity to cancer cells, their mechanism of action is definitely cytotoxic. They work by interfering with the mitochondria - the energy producing units of our cells. While graviola products claim to be clinically tested, when I conducted a detailed search of data from the National Library of Medicine, I could not find any entries of clinical trials. Furthermore, when I went to various websites that provided "clinical references" all that I could find were the test tube studies of the purified acetogenins. These are not clinical trials.

While marketing data also claim a high degree of safety, it is highly suspect. For example, nowhere did I find mention of the fact that regular consumption of graviola has been linked to a from of Parkinson's disease.2 Specifically, the frequency of treatment-resistant Parkinson's disease is much higher in areas that consume the fruit and infusions of graviola. Experimental studies have documented that graviola extracts exert some of their cytotoxic activity on brain cells that produce dopamine - the key neurotransmitter that controls physical movement. Until this issue is cleared up, I think it is irresponsible for marketers to be selling graviola products. Of course, this statement as many others I have made over the years will surely anger people selling products that I don't think of as legitimate.

While graviola may be proven to be legitimate at some point, here is my key point with it as my example - THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO GAMBLE WITH PRODUCTS WITH QUESTIONABLE SAFETY OR EFFICACY WHEN SAFER MORE EFFECTIVE PRODUCTS ARE AVAILABLE.

Final Comments

Believe me, my reason for writing this editorial is not shameless self promotion because I want to sell more books, it is simply that I am frustrated by people looking for answers in the wrong places. The more that I have learned about natural medicine, the more that it has fueled a greater appreciation for the wonder of Nature and the belief that there is a purpose to life. It is that awe that motivates to spread the word of effective medicines from Nature. I passionately want people to get the best results with natural medicine - that is what motivates me.

Key References:

  1. Leipner J and Saller R: Systemic enzyme therapy in oncology: effect and mode of action. Drugs. 2000;59:769-80.
  2. Lannuzel A, Michel PP, Caparros-Lefebvre D, et al. Toxicity of Annonaceae for dopaminergic neurons: potential role in atypical parkinsonism in Guadeloupe. Mov Disord 2002;17(1):84-90.

Michael T. Murray, N.D., is widely regarded as one of world's leading authorities on natural medicine. A prolific author, Dr. Murray has written over 20 books on health and nutrition including the best-selling Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine and his latest book The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Dr. Murray is also Director of Product Development and Education for Natural Factors one of the leading manufacturers of natural products.

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