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Dear Dr. Roach • I wonder why you never talk about holistic measures to prevent illnesses, such as cancer. I just read an article by an oncologist who said there are certain anti-cancer supplements that work, including vitamin D, magnolia extract and artichoke extract, all of which have been shown in laboratory studies to kill a variety of cancer cells, including colon, breast and liver cancers, and leukemia. Artichoke extract also contains cynarin, which decreases inflammation. Other compounds that can reduce cancer growth are black cumin seed oil and bee propolis, which is rich in caffeic acid phenethyl ester (CAPE), chrysin and cinnamic acid — compounds that affect cancer genes. Studies show that they reduce the growth of many cancers, including colon, prostate and kidney.

I’ve also read about the powerful effects that simple seasonings have on cancer cells: black pepper, sage and oregano. My question to you is: Why isn’t this blasted all over the news media, and why don’t physicians who can access this information tell it to their patients? — V.A.

Answer • The therapies you mention are termed “complementary” or “alternative” treatments, specifically “herbal treatments.” Holistic medicine, on the other hand, aims to treat the entire person — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Holistic medicine ought to be a goal for all providers, since health consists of much more than mere absence of physical disease. While a physician can help with some of these aspects, it is difficult or impossible for one person to be expert in helping a person meet all goals of wellness, which is why collaborative care is so important.

With respect to the herbal treatments you mention, and others like them, it is my opinion that these have potential to help treat some kinds of cancer. However, I am quite convinced, after reading many studies, that none of them is completely effective at preventing or curing cancer. Compounds can be very effective at killing cancer cells in a laboratory, but that is very different from killing cancer cells in a person at a level that’s achievable without toxicity. That’s why they aren’t on the news media — they aren’t a cure, and haven’t been proven definitively helpful. If that changes, I will be among the first to spread the news.

Where I believe alternative therapies have the most potential in cancer is in combination with traditional therapies: helping people feel better through chemotherapy and radiation. Some herbals, like turmeric, have solid data showing benefit in combination with chemotherapy in treating some cancers.

Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.