Can Mistletoe Be Used to Treat Cancer?
With Christmas 2012 already a thing of the past, it’s not surprising that many of us are ready to pack up the tree, stow away the ornaments, and restore the family/living room to a relative state of organization. But one Christmas item may deserve a second glance, and that is the mistletoe.
By mistletoe, I don’t mean the sprig of green leaves and red berries placed above the door for holiday kissing. Rather, I’m talking about the ancient herb that grows on the branches and trunks of numerous deciduous trees. And this herb may have medicinal properties that far exceed its seasonal popularity.
Through the Ages
Historically, mistletoe has been used in European medical preparations for centuries, treating such maladies as epilepsy, infertility, hypertension, and arthritis. Druids believed mistletoe had the power to protect their homes and prevents fights from occurring and so they hung it above their doorways. In time, this custom evolved into the present ritual of kissing underneath mistletoe at Christmas.
But in 1921, the plant acquired a much different reputation when Austrian spiritual leader Rudolf Steiner suggested that as mistletoe poisonous it might be used to kill parasitic cancer tumors. Today, Swiss and German clinics continue to actively use mistletoe preparations in treating cancer, a process that is more aligned to alchemy and homeopathy than pharmacology.
Is there any real benefit derived from the mistletoe treatments administered in Europe? As of right now, this question seems to pose a muddled answer. Since Steiner’s suggestion, mistletoe has been studied for its cancer fighting properties, especially for treating solid tumors. It has been suggested that mistletoe extract enhances immune function, which increases the production of immune cells. When administered as a form of therapy for cancer, the extracts are given by injection under the skin, into a vein or directly into a tumor. In Europe, especially Germany, mistletoe administered in this way has shown effective in treating cancer.
But critics in the United States are skeptical. They dismiss many European studies as too small or improperly designed. Physicians believe the data surrounding mistletoe treatments is insufficient.
Still, there are those in health care who believe otherwise and substantiate their opinions with science. There are at least two studies showing fewer symptoms and increased longevity among cancer patients that used mistletoe and chemo when compared with those that only used chemo.
In a 2002 NCCAM study, a combination of mistletoe extract and chemo treatments showed low toxicity and health benefits in almost half the patients. In this case, mistletoe demonstrated its value as a modifying agent, helping to reduce the physical side effects of chemotherapy.
The reviews of mistletoe are thus varied. Presently, 60 percent of all cancer patients in Germany and Switzerland are prescribed mistletoe extract at some point in their treatment, yet the FDA of the US has yet to approve any form of mistletoe treatment.
Until more convincing studies are performed, we’ll have to keep this plant for its simple holiday cheer.