Chinese Medicine and Cancer
Richard Walters
(Excerpted from Options: The Alternative Cancer Therapy Book, Avery Publishing Group, 1993)

Chinese medicine, a system reaching back more than 2,000 years, is practiced by about one-fifth of the world's population. Many people in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia regard Chinese medicine as their first line of defense in maintaining health and combating disease. Although acupuncture has captured attention in the United States, traditional herbal medicine plays a far greater role in the Chinese health-care system. Backed by centuries of empirical experience, China's huge pharmacopeia contains thousands of substances of plant, animal, or mineral origin, most of them herbs. At least half of Chinese folk remedies have some kind of scientific basis for their reputed claims, according to a National Academy of Sciences study of 796 Chinese herbal and animal remedies.1 Chinese medicine utilizes a range of therapeutic methods including herbs, diet, massage, osteopathic-type manipulation, breathing, deep relaxation, and therapeutic exercise in a holistic approach to health.

The leading cause of death in China is cancer, followed by stroke. Conventional Western cancer therapies-chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery-have been increasingly used since the 1960s in Chinese hospitals. However, the side effects of these treatments have been, there as here, often highly debilitating. This has led the Chinese government to fund research into the traditional herbal medicines. One result is the routine use of Fu Zhen therapy, an immune-enhancing herbal regimen, as an adjunct to chemotherapy and radiation. Fu Zhen therapy is reported to protect the immune system from damage and to increase survival rates, sometimes dramatically, when used in conjunction with the modern cancer therapies. The principal Fu Zhen herbs (astragalus, ligustrum, ginseng, codonopsis, atractylodes, and ganoderma) strengthen the body's nonspecific immunity and increase the functions of the T-cells.2

Herbal antitoxin therapies, also regularly used, contain many herbs that have been found to inhibit tumor growth by a variety of mechanisms. Kelp and pokeroot are among the herbs known to dissolve tumors in Chinese herbal therapy.

In the United States, it is very rare for a person with cancer to be treated solely by Chinese medicine, even though many practitioners say that traditional Chinese medicine can often handle cancer on its own, with success in cases that proved untreatable by Western medicine.3 "For patients who desire the expertise of a conventional oncologist as well as the benefits of more natural methods," says Roger Jahnke, a doctor of Oriental medicine and director of the Health Action Clinic in Santa Barbara, California, "Chinese medicine can provide an important collaborative resource to link with conventional cancer treatment. Patients should develop a healing team that could include the oncologist, a practitioner of acupuncture and herbal pharmacology, and perhaps a nutritionist, psychologist and support group of some kind. The result is a more comprehensive and synergistic therapeutic effect." When used in tandem with chemotherapy, Chinese herbal medicine can control and minimize the side effects of chemical drugs and may enhance their therapeutic effects. Herbs also bolster immune-system functions depressed by radiation.4

In China, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are considered viable treatments for benign and malignant tumors by physicians who are attempting to integrate Eastern and Western methods. Conventional treatments may be required to deal with a situation within the time available to the patient, notes Zhang Dai-zhao, a specialist in cancer treatment in Beijing. Although Chinese energetic therapies such as herbal medicine and acupuncture may be able to eventually dismantle pathologic matter, "they may take more time than the patient has," he states.5 Many practitioners in China say that the best results against cancer are obtained by means of a joint attack combining Oriental and Western medicine, with the patient pursuing a suitable diet, Chinese yoga, and therapeutic exercise.

In classic Chinese medicine, there is no specific concept of cancer, though there is of tumors. Many nutritive tonics and herbal medicines were developed to alleviate pain and prolong survival by strengthening the body's life forces and arresting tumor progression. Chinese doctors believe the causes of cancer are multiple, including toxins and other environmental factors, called "external causes," as well as "internal causes" such as emotional stress, bad eating habits, accumulated wastes from food, and damaged organs. Two main factors are stagnant blood and a blockage or accumulation of chi, or qi (pronounced chee), the vital energy said to circulate along the meridians, or pathways, linking all parts of the body.

Illness is an energy imbalance, an excess or deficiency of the body's elemental energies. According to the ancient Chinese, chi, the life force, controls the body's workings as it travels along the meridians, completing an energy cycle every twenty-four hours. A person is healthy when there is a balanced, sufficient flow of chi, which keeps the blood and body fluids circulating and fights disease. But if the circulation of chi is blocked for any reason or becomes excessive or deficient, pain and disease can result. The flow of chi may be disrupted by an imbalanced diet or lifestyle, overwork, stress, repressed or excessive emotions, or lack of exercise. Imbalances in yin and yang-complementary forces in dynamic flux-also disturb the normal, smooth flow of chit

Cancer, like all other diseases, is regarded as a manifestation of an underlying imbalance. The tumor is the "uppermost branch," not the "root," of the illness. Each patient may have a different imbalance causing what outwardly looks like the same type of cancer. Each person is unique, so the Oriental doctor attempts to identify the exact individual pattern of excess, deficiency, or blockage that led to the disease. The doctor treats the imbalance rather than a condition known as "stomach cancer," or "breast cancer," or so on. The prescribed treatment will vary from one patient to the next, depending on the specific imbalances.

The Chinese doctor makes a diagnosis in terms of yin and yang, chi, Blood, and organ imbalance. The term Blood refers to much more than the material substance. Blood is the process of nourishing the organism; it occurs in a mutually regulating relationship with chi and Moisture (body fluids). In forming a diagnosis, the doctor is guided by the Eight Principles, which are four sets of polar categories (yin and yang, cold and heat, deficiency and excess, and interior and exterior). The Eight Principles serve as the framework for the data gathered through physical examination, tongue and pulse diagnosis, and observation of symptoms. Once the doctor forms a cohesive picture of the pattern of disharmony, he or she can formulate a treatment plan to restore balance.

The tongue is considered a sensitive barometer of human health in traditional Chinese medicine. Subtle changes in its color, texture, and coating indicate specific body imbalances and reveal the progress of the illness to the experienced doctor. In neglecting tongue diagnosis, "The West may be overlooking a highly valuable clinical tool," according to David Eisenberg, M.D., a clinical research fellow at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Eisenberg, who speaks Chinese, worked inside urban Chinese hospitals in 1979 and 1980. He concluded from his firsthand observations that "acupuncture, herbal medicine, and massage may be highly effective therapeutic tools."6

The pulse, like the tongue, is also a barometer of harmony or disorder. By feeling positions on each wrist along the radial artery, the well-trained Chinese diagnostician can detect underlying imbalances in internal organs and in the body as a whole.

Herbs and foods in Chinese medical practice are viewed energetically, that is, in terms of their influence on the body's energy field. This is also true of Indian Ayurvedic medicine (Chapter 27). The diet must be aligned with the energetics of the prescribed herbs; otherwise, the foods eaten may inhibit the herbal preparations' beneficial effects. Conversely, a diet in harmony with the herbal therapy will enhance the herbs' healing powers. The Chinese healer recognizes that what we eat can either protect and rebalance our bodies or pollute our systems. Diet is a remedy of prime importance. Chinese food therapy is a sophisticated system that recognizes six different human constitutional types and evaluates foods according to their therapeutic properties. For cancer patients, Chinese doctors frequently recommend a diet based upon whole grains, beans, and fresh vegetables.

Most Chinese healers advise patients undergoing herbal treatment to avoid all raw foods, because they are too "cold," and white sugar, because it is too rich and overstimulates the pancreas and liver. Strong spices, thought to disperse energy from within to the surface of the body, should be avoided. Cancer patients are also advised to shun coffee, because it overtaxes the adrenals; cold dairy foods, because they are too congesting; and shellfish and citrus, because they are too "cold" and "moist."

Most Chinese people prefer herbal medicines to Western allopathic drugs. Herbal preparations are thought to be more natural, much less dangerous, and slower and gentler in action, yet equally or more effective compared to synthetic chemical drugs. Herbs are nearly always used as compound prescriptions, with a single formula containing between six and twelve herbs. Remedies are often complex, combining multiple ingredients to mirror and correct patterns of disorganized chi, Blood, and Moisture. Generally, each formula contains a chief herb, one or more assistant herbs, and a "courier herb" to take the medicine to the site of the "lesion."

Studies of Fu Zhen therapy in the United States and China have demonstrated its value in treating a wide range of immune-compromised conditions, including cancer, leukemia, AIDS and ARC, and chronic Epstein-Barr virus. In a study of seventy-six patients with Stage II primary liver cancer, twenty-nine of the forty-six people receiving Fu Zhen therapy in combination with radiation or chemotherapy survived for a year, and ten survived for three years. Only six of the thirty patients who received radiation or chemotherapy alone survived one year, and all died by the third year.7 In laboratory studies, Fu Zhen herbs have prevented the growth of transplanted tumors.

The most highly praised blood tonic in the East, Tang kuei (Angelica sinensis), has been used clinically in China to treat cancer of the esophagus and liver with good results. The Chinese have claimed dramatic success using this herb both alone and in combination with other medicinal agents in treating cervical cancer and, to a lesser extent, breast cancer in women.8 It can be administered in either infusion or douche form. Many other Chinese herbs could be cited for their documented antitumor effects.9

Nearly all of the Chinese herbs used today to treat cancer and other immune-deficient conditions fall into three broad categories. Tonic herbs increase the number and activity of immunologically active cells and proteins. Toxin-clearing herbs clear the blood of germs and of waste products from the destruction of tumors and germs. Blood activating herbs reduce the coagulation and inflammatory reactions associated with immune response. Herbal therapy in cancer treatment can improve appetite, reduce nausea and vomiting, and alleviate stress.

In Japan, classical Chinese herbal formulas are prepackaged and standardized. Kanpo, the Japanese version of Chinese herbalism, has reported many successes in treating cancer. In Tokyo, many kanpo doctors work in conventional hospitals prescribing drugs but moonlight to pursue their private herbal practices. Kanpo doctors dispense with much of the conceptual framework of traditional Chinese medicine such as the division of the body into yin and yang parts.

Another component of Chinese medicine used in cancer treatment is chi gong a 3,000-year-old exercise that combines the slow, symmetrical, graceful movements of tai chi with meditation, relaxation, patterned breathing, guided imagery, and other behavioral techniques. The aim is to enable a person to regulate and direct the flow of chi, or vital force, within his or her own body. The student or patient is taught to focus his or her chi at a point in the center of the body, roughly two inches below the navel, called the dan tian, or vital center. From this center, the chi is said to emanate to distant regions of the body. Students reportedly learn to sense the presence of chi at the vital center in the form of localized warmth and then to direct the life energy to specific parts of the body. Based on the experience of students who take chi gong courses for self-treatment purposes, it usually takes about three months for the exercises to show their effect. In cancer therapy, the Chinese practitioner prescribes exercises geared to the individual patient.

Since 1979, "the Chinese have cured hundreds of cancer victims through chi gong," and many thousands have used this practice to prolong their lives, reports Paul Dong, a journalist and chi gong practitioner and teacher based in Oakland, California.10 Dong, who was born in mainland China, went to China in 1984 to investigate chi gong. Case histories of recovered cancer patients are frequently reported in chi gong magazines. This physical-mental exercise has aided remissions in many lung cancer patients who found conventional Western therapies ineffective. On December 2, 1986, the New York Times reported that the twenty-six chi gong clinics in China had successes in treating some cardiac diseases, paralysis, and neurological disorders.

The modern use of chi gong to treat cancer originated with Guo Lin (1906-1984), a Chinese painter who was afflicted with uterine cancer in 1949 and was treated by surgery. The cancer recurred in 1960, with metastasis to the bladder. After another operation, Guo Lin had another recurrence and doctors told her she had six months to live. Turning to ancient chi gong manuals left to her by her grandfather, a Taoist priest, she practiced chi gong two hours every day, and in six months, the cancer had abated. Convinced that chi gong was responsible for her recovery, Madame Guo, in 1970, began giving lessons in what she called New Chi Gong Therapy. By 1977, cancer patients from all over China were pouring into Beijing to take part in her chi gong therapy classes. Guo Lin reportedly helped hundreds of cancer sufferers attain remissions while prolonging the lives and easing the pain of thousands more.11

Among the first masters of chi gong were Taoist and Buddhist monks. China's great scholars and philosophers, including Confucius and Lao Tse, were also students of this discipline, which predates all the martial arts and gave birth to tai chi, kung fu, and tai kwan do. Today, millions of Chinese rise every morning at dawn to practice the ancient technique of chi gong to promote mental and physical well-being. Chi gong translates as "manipulation of vital energy" or, simply, "breathing skill" (since the character for chi means both "vital energy" and "breath").

How chi gong achieves healing effects is not fully understood, though several mechanisms of action have been proposed. From the standpoint of traditional Chinese medicine, chi gong energizes the body's vital forces, balances yin and yang, strengthens blood circulation, and improves the patient's emotional and mental states. From the viewpoint of Western medicine, chi gong increases the absorption and utilization of oxygen from the blood, as does yoga. Nobel Prize-winner Otto Warburg found that oxygen deficiency is typical of cancer cells and that when the body is rich in oxygen, cancer cells die. Practicing chi gong exercises has a positive effect on certain enzymes that play key roles in the body's maintenance of health and in phospho~rylation, a basic biochemical process that supplies the energy necessary for cell work.12 Phosphorylation is central to oxygen provision for all of the body's cells and is vitally important to immune response.

Exercise can mobilize the body's natural killer cells, which seek out and destroy cancer cells and cells infected by viruses. An increased oxygen uptake from the blood can also neutralize free radicals. The slow, deep breathing and moderate body motion of chi gong (or yoga) can cause the newly available oxygen to bind with free radicals, rendering them harmless.13 Research in China indicates that after a chi gong exercise lasting about forty minutes, the body's internal regional blood volume increases by 30 percent, which greatly improves the supply of oxygen available to the cells.14

Through intensive practice of chi gong, "a whole set of beneficial psychological and spiritual conditions emerge," observes Paul Dong in his book Chi Gong: The Ancient Chinese Way to Health. Besides promoting emotional well-being, chi gong exercises build patients' confidence and steel their will to defeat cancer. Dong, who has practiced chi gong since 1980, notes that positive attitude plays a role in curing disease. He likens chi gong's apparent immune-boosting effects to Western mind-body healing approaches such as the new field of psychoneuroimmunology.

In addition to internal chi gong, the manipulation of energy flow within one's own body, there is also external chi gong, the reputed ability to project one's internal chi toward another body. In external chi therapy, widely accepted in China for the treatment of many disorders, no physical contact is required. The advanced chi gong expert simply projects his or her chi energy through the fingers or palm toward the patient, thereby purportedly killing cancer cells. External chi gong practitioners in China claim that through this technique, they can destroy bacteria and transmit health-promoting energies. They believe they have proven the existence of chi as a physical reality evident in psychokinetic (mind-over-matter) powers, clairvoyance, and healing effects. To skeptics, these assertions spring from self-deception and heightened suggestibility.

Paul Dong tells of a Japanese cancer victim, with a tumor the size of an egg deeply imbedded in his nasal cavity, who made a trip to a Beijing hospital to undergo external chi therapy. After twelve days of treatment, the man's tumor had shrunk and his pain had considerably eased.15 Dr. Feng Li-da, professor of immunology at Beijing College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, has done many experiments on external chi transmission and claims that a chi gong expert can destroy uterine cancer cells, gastric cancer cells, flu virus, and colon and dysentery bacilli with varying degrees of success. In The Scientific Basis of Chi Gong, Professor Xie Huan-zhang of Beijing Industrial College states that chi effects detected with scientific instruments include magnetic fields, infrared radiation, infrasound, and ion streams of visible light and superfaint luminescence.16

Dong stresses that external chi treatment should only be considered a temporary measure. But he also suggests that if a patient is too weak or otherwise unable to practice chi gong regularly, external chi should be tried. Combinations of internal and external chi treatment can also be attempted.

Acupuncture is another Chinese therapeutic method for changing the flow or quality of the life force and rebalancing body energies. The Chinese say that chi circulates within fourteen major meridians, or energy channels, traversing the body from the top of the head to the tips of the fingers and toes. Each meridian is connected to an internal organ. Specific points on each invisible channel, when stimulated, affect the flow of chi in that and other channels or in the associated organs. By stimulating these points with extremely fine needles or massage, acupuncture unblocks energy or adjusts its flow. Inserting and manipulating the needles-hairlike slivers of stainless steel-is believed to correct the imbalances that underlie disease.

Acupuncture has been used to treat persistent pain, arthritis, asthma, infertility, and acute and chronic diseases. In cancer, it can alleviate the pain and functional disorders associated with the illness, for example, improving the ability to swallow in victims of esophageal cancer. Acupuncture is also used to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, and has been employed as a primary treatment for very early signs of breast and cervical cancer, though the Chinese are more likely to utilize herbal remedies to support immunity and control malignant growth. Acupuncture can also be helpful in stress reduction and the alleviation of pain following surgery.

Some practitioners advise against acupuncture in the treatment of cancer, arguing that the increased energy flow and circulation pose a risk of spreading the disease. Most others disagree, however, pointing to the benefits already cited. Leukemia has been successfully treated with acupuncture therapy.1~7 In addition, acupuncture has exhibited a wide range of actions in boosting immunity, including increasing the number of white blood cells,~18 boosting natural killer cell activity,19 and increasing the amount of B-cells, which manufacture antibodies, chemicals that help destroy foreign invaders in the body.20 Acupuncture also elevates the levels of circulating immunoglobulins and stimulates the production of red blood cells.

A major use of acupuncture, at least in China, is as an alternative to anesthesia during surgery. Dr. David Eisenberg of Harvard Medical School assisted with the acupuncture during a surgical operation performed on a fifty-eight-year-old man who had a chestnut-sized tumor located in the center of his brain. The successful surgery was done without anesthesia at the Beijing Neurosurgical Institute. The patient remained totally awake and responsive during brain surgery and felt no pain. He laughed and talked with Dr. Eisenberg during the four-hour operation while a few well-placed, ultrathin needles protected him from pain.21

Since acupuncture needles are extremely fine, minimal or no pain is experienced when they are inserted. Many people feel a slight pinprick when the needle goes in, followed by another mild sensation as the needle goes deeper. The response to acupuncture treatment is highly individual; many patients report a dreamy sense of relaxed well-being and elation. The needles are often left in place for twenty to thirty minutes.

For those who feel uncomfortable with the idea of needles being stuck in them, other techniques are available to stimulate the acupuncture points and balance the body's energy system. The points can be activated by acupressure, a term encompassing several massage techniques, such as tui na, a traditional Chinese system to mobilize chi and promote blood circulation. In shiatsu, a Japanese equivalent of Chinese massage, the practitioner presses his or her fingers into the acupuncture points and massages them. The points are held for just three to five seconds. In another technique, moxibustion, the glowing tip of a tiny cone of smoldering moss is held next to the acupuncture point. When the patient finds it too hot, the moxa stick, made of compressed dried leaves of Chinese mugwort, is withdrawn. Finally, electroacupuncture devices stimulate the points without any needles or bodily invasion. .

The energy meridians and acupuncture points are invisible-if they exist, they do not correspond to any known anatomical entities. Critics dismiss acupuncture as a placebo effect. However, it is now known that acupuncture triggers a significant release of morphinelike substances called endorphins and enkephalins, natural painkillers that also promote healing and relieve depression. Some scientists speculate that the needles cause an anesthetic effect in surgery by closing "gates" to the brain along the spinal cord, blocking the pain message so it isn't felt. Nobel Prize-nominee Robert Becker, M.D., a pioneer in tissue repair and regeneration through electrotherapy, has theorized that the meridians are electrical conductors and the acupuncture points, amplifiers. With the help of a biophysicist, Dr. Becker proved to his satisfaction that "at least the major parts of the acupuncture charts had, as thejargon goes, 'an objective basis in reality.'"22

Two French physicians have done a series of intriguing experiments that they claim make visible the acupuncture meridian system. Jean-Claude Darras, M.D., and Professor Pierre de Vernejoul, M.D, injected radioactive isotopes into the acupoints of patients and traced the isotopes' uptake by gamma-camera imaging. They found that the isotopes migrated along the classical Chinese meridian pathways. In contrast, injecting the isotopes into random points on the skin produced no such results. Further tests demonstrated that the migration was not through the vascular or lymphatic system. The research, conducted at the Nuclear Medical Section of Neckar Hospital in Paris, was reported at the World Research Foundation Congress in 1986.

When seeking a doctor in the United States who practices Oriental medicine, cancer patients need to be aware of what doctors can do and what patients can learn to do for themselves. According to Dr. Roger Jahnke, "There are four basic things that the doctor of Chinese medicine can do for you: herbal prescriptions, acupuncture, massage, and external chi gong. At least as important, however, are the things the doctor can teach you to do for yourself. These include guidance in the use of tonic or wellness herbs, in proper nutrition, and in devising a suitable exercise program that may involve activities like swimming or walking. A competent practitioner can also teach the patient self-applied massage, meditation and relaxation techniques, and chi gong exercises. Finally, the doctor can offer guidance to help patients fulfill their unique spiritual purpose. Prospective patients should look for a doctor who provides all of these things, or one who can help patients network to all of these things, from body care up to the spiritual components of health."


1. Carl Sherman, "Folk Remedies That Really Work,. Prevention, August 1979, p. 108.
2. Subhuti Dharmananda, Chinese Herbal Therapies for Immune Disorders (Portland, OR: Institute for Traditional Medicine, 1988), pp. 9-25.
3. Hong-Yen Hsu, Treating Cancer With Chinese Herbs (Long Beach, CA: Oriental Healing Arts Institute, 1982), p. viii
4. Zhang Dai-zhao, The Treatment of Cancer by Integrated Chinese-Western Medicine (Boulder, CO: Blue Poppy Press, 1989), pp. 126-127.
5. Ibid, p. vi. 6. David Eisenberg with Thomas Lee Wright, Encounters With Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 134.
7. Dharmananda, op. cit., p. 10; and Paul Bergner, "Botanical Medicine," The Nutrition and Dietary Consultant, April 1988.
8. John Heinerman, The Treatment of Cancer With Herbs (Orem, UT: Bi-World Publishers, 1984), p. 110.
9. Hong-Yen Hsu, op. cit.; Y.K. Hsieh, Anti-Cancer Chinese Herbs (Hong Kong Hsing Hua Books, 1977); and Chinese Anti-Cancer Herb Research Center, A Collection of Chinese Anti-Cancer Formulas (Taichung, China: China Medical College, 1975)
10 Paul Dong and Aristide H.Esser, Chi Gong The Ancient Chinese Way to Heath (New York: Paragon House, 1990), p. 85.
11. Ibid., pp. 86-87.
12. Wang Chong-xing et al., in First World Conference for Academic Exchange of Medical Qi Gong, 1988, p. 85
13. Roger Jahnke, "The Most Profound Medicine, Part II: Physiological Mechanisms Operating in the Human System During the Practice of Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama," Townsend Letter for Doctors, February-March 1991, p. 126.
14. Dong, op. cit, p. 95.
15. Ibid., p. 97.
16. Xie Huan-zhang, The Scientific Basis of Chi Gong (Beijing Beijing Institute of Technology, 1985).
17. S.K. Kaneko, "Acupuncture Therapy for Leukemia," Journal of the Japan Acupuncture and Moxibustion Association, vol. 25, no. 2, May 1976, pp. 47-50.
18. M. Brown et al., "The Effect of Acupuncture on White Cell Counts," American Journal of Chinese Medicine, vol. 2, no. 4, 1974, pp. 383-398; and T. Craciun et al., "Neuro-Humoral Modification After Acupuncture," American Journal of Acupuncture, vol. l, April 1973, pp. 67-70.
19 Y. Kurono et al, "Effects of Electrical Acupuncture on the Human Immune System (III),Journal of the Japan Society of Acupuncture, vol. 33, no. 1, September 1983, pp. 112-117
20 Y. Kurono, ~"The Influence of Acupuncture on the Immune System in the Human Body," Journal of the Japan Acupuncture and Moxibustion Society, vol. 29, no. 2, 1980, pp. 22-27.
21. Eisenberg and Wright, op. cit., pp. 68-77.
22. Robert Becker and Gary Selden, The Body Electric (New York: William Morrow, 1985), p. 236.