The Woman's Book of Healing Herbs: Healing Teas, Tonics, Supplements, and Formulas
Sari Harrar and Sara Altshul O’Donnell

Therapeutic Herb Manual: A Guide to the Safe and Effective Use of Liquid Herbal Extracts
Ed Smith

Herbs Against Cancer
Ralph W. Moss

Breast Cancer? Breast Health! The Wise Woman Way
Susan Weed

Preventing and Reversing Breast Cancer Naturally—A Science-Based Nutritional Approach to Protecting Yourself From Breast and Other Cancers
Dr Thad Mauney

One source for high-quality supplements is CNCA.

One source for high-quality essential oils is Young Living.

Herbs and supplements


Douglas Schar, herbalist and author, has a balanced philosophy about herbs: “Preventive medicine is where herbal medicine makes its greatest contribution.... If you have appendicitis, take yourself to the emergency room. If you want to avoid getting appendicitis, investigate herbal medicine.”[1

His comments echoed my thoughts about breast cancer. Now that I had the problem, I had no hesitation undergoing surgery to remove it. And yet, I was certainly interested in how herbs could help me to prevent the condition returning.

There are many useful books on herbs to get you started. One succinct and easy-to-read book is Therapeutic Herb Manual: A Guide to the Safe and Effective Use of Liquid Herbal Extracts, by Ed Smith, well-known medical herbalist and founder of Herb Pharm, an organic herb farm and herbal-extract company.

Herbalist Susan Weed’s book Breast Cancer? Breast Health! has an interesting perspective on the use of herbs in breast cancer and describes how herbs can be used to support the body through all kinds of treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy. She stresses the importance of fresh herbs and cautions about herbs that have been sitting on a supermarket shelf for a long time. Health food stores or stores that specialize in selling herbs may be a better choice.

If you want to know all about herbs and cancer, read Herbs Against Cancer: History and Controversy, by Dr. Ralph Moss. This is a serious book about herbs from a historical and clinical perspective. He points out the fallacies and concerns about some of the popularly-touted herbs that are supposed to cure cancer.

I do not doubt that some people have been cured by herbs and herbal remedies. In fact, my herbalist cured her husband of kidney cancer with the use of herbs. However, in the long run I felt I could not entrust my health to herbs alone. So instead of looking for herbs to “cure” my cancer, I used them as an adjunct to my treatment. I told the herbalist exactly what I was looking for—support for my immune system and assistance with the side effects of the medical treatment.

After a consultation, she made up four specific herbal tinctures for me to use during the course of my illness. These were to boost my immune system and to assist in digestion, as well as a specific tincture for my constitution. She used herbs that are not found in over-the-counter medicines and capsules. For example, the one for the immune system contained Baptisia, Phytolacca, Scrophularia, Tumeric, Thuja and Arctium. The digestive tincture contained Berberis, Xanthoxylum, Fouqueria, and Glycerrhiza.

Another tincture contained Guta Kola, Ginkgo, Rosemary, Skullcap, Passion Flower, and Calamus. These herbs were very helpful for the “brain fog” of chemotherapy, a phenomenon that is well-known to cancer patients and the medical staff who care for them. Your brain feels kind of like cotton wool, and it is hard to concentrate, think, or focus, even on reading a book. I used this tincture as well as a Ginkgo Biloba and Saint John’s Wort to help keep my mind as clear as possible during chemotherapy.

Some other herbs I used during chemotherapy and radiation included Astragalus, Yellow Dock, Siberian Ginseng, Milk Thistle, and Burdock root, which are known to boost the immune system and to help boost white and red blood cells. Milk Thistle improves the liver function and protects the liver, which is the main organ that metabolizes and removes chemotherapy agents from the system. I also used a Chinese herbal remedy called Curing Pills (a traditional formula containing sixteen different Chinese herbs) to help with nausea and gastrointestinal upsets during chemotherapy. Another supplement that helps normalize the functioning of the digestive system after chemotherapy is acidophilus, which restores the body’s natural intestinal flora.

Another helpful herbal product was Saint John’s Wort oil, which I used on my skin to reduce the inflammation sometimes caused by radiation therapy. I applied it overnight to the breasts and washed it off in the morning, before the next treatment.

Some herbs can interfere with the action of certain medications, so be sure to let your doctor and your naturopath know all of the herbs and medications you are taking. Another thing to be aware of is that some herbs have an estrogen-like action. If you have uterine cancer or a breast cancer that is estrogen sensitive, it is possible these herbs could cause the cancer to grow faster.[2] This underscores the importance of consulting with an experienced herbalist, if possible one who has experience with cancer patients, when putting together your program.

Vitamins and minerals

I was never one for handfuls of vitamins, as I always thought that I would get all the nutrients I needed if I “ate well” and maintained a “balanced diet.” Sadly, this is often not the case today. In the last forty years and more there has been a marked decline in the quality of foods that we eat and a decrease in the amount of nutrients in these foods. This is especially important to consider if you are dealing with cancer and its treatment, which create big demands on the immune system.

In addition to improving my diet and the quality of food I ate, I began to take supplements and vitamins, some recommended by the nutritionists at CTCA, and others added based on my own research. I didn’t go overboard, but I tried to be sensible. I attribute some of my improved health and well-being to the vitamins and supplements I took. It is important to remember that the taking of supplements is not a substitute for eating correctly each day.

When you are dealing with a more-than-ordinary stress on the immune system (like cancer or cancer therapies), supplemental antioxidants are recommended. A good daily program would include 1,000 mg of vitamin C, 25,000 iu of beta-carotene, 400 iu of vitamin E and 200 mcg of selenium. Many cancer patients take additional antioxidants such as Coenzyme Q-10, grape-seed extract, and glutathione.

Essential oils

Essential oils are distilled from the roots, leaves, flowers, and other parts of plants. They have been used for centuries in perfumes and to promote health and well-being. Essential oils have many restorative effects on the body. They are used to relax muscles, stimulate circulation, relieve pain, enhance immunity, alleviate physical, mental, and emotional stress, and fight infection. They can support the body, mind, and spirit and help strengthen the body so that it can heal itself.

I can feel the effect of an essential oil within a few seconds of applying it to my body or even just smelling it. Essential oils have a wonderfully uplifting and subtle effect on the body as well as the spirit, the mind, and the emotions. I used them to assist the healing process and to smooth out the effects of surgery or treatment.

The plants used in producing high-quality oils are grown organically and carefully harvested. These oils are expensive because they are pure and don’t contain synthetic compounds or fillers. However, it is worth spending the extra money. They are highly concentrated and used sparingly, so they last a long time. (Dilute before use by placing five or six drops into an ounce of unscented lotion or carrier oil, such as almond oil.)

Oils can be applied during massage, through compresses, or directly to the body. They can be used in baths or diffused into the air. They can be applied to the pulse points or to any specific area of the body that needs attention. I often placed them on my heart or over the third eye, the spiritual center in the brow. An easy way to use them is to place a drop in your hand and rub your palms together, smelling the fragrance.

When essential oils are diffused into the air, the compounds in the oil stimulate the olfactory nerve, which is connected to areas deep within the brain. This can directly influence mood, emotions, and many of the unconscious functions of the body. When used in a bath or for massage, they are absorbed through the skin and can affect every part of the body within twenty minutes.

Here are some of the oils that I used during my cancer treatment:

Since I was a child, I have known that my name, Neroli, is the name of an essential oil derived from orange blossom. Neroli oil is used to lift depression and anxiety, to calm and relax the body (including the muscles), and to deal with stress. It helps to bring things into focus and helps us to be present in the moment. It can be used to strengthen and stabilize the emotions and bring relief to seemingly hopeless situations.

Frankincense is an ancient oil, long known for its antiseptic properties. Frankincense is said to increase the activity of the white blood cells and is thought to improve the immune system through several different means.

Lavender is used to balance the body and to promote a sense of well-being. It is often used to decrease inflammation and infection and to lift depression. It has soothing and regenerating properties and is wonderfully relaxing in baths and in massage.

Spikenard is used in India as a medicinal herb and to nourish and regenerate the skin. But this oil is also known for its spiritual properties and its ability to assist the soul through difficult initiations.

Peppermint has long been known to sooth the digestive system. It is used to help reduce side effect of nausea during chemotherapy. It has also been reputed to improve concentration and mental acuity.


Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland and is involved in regulating sleep and the daily rhythm of the body’s functions. As a supplement, it is gaining popularity in breast-cancer treatment for its ability to enhance the immune system.[3]

Although it is available over the counter in health food stores and drug stores, you should consult your doctor before self-treating, as it does have side effects and can interact with other drugs. It can also cause problems with certain illnesses and is not appropriate for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or who are considering pregnancy. Its long-term safety is unknown. I took it for over a year during my treatment and under the direction of my naturopath I continue to take it as a preventative.

Green tea extract

For thousands of years Eastern medicine has extolled the benefits of green tea and today it is known for its ability to promote general health and well being. The naturopaths at CTCA (Cancer Treatment Centers of America) recommend nine cups of green tea per day as an antioxidant. However, if this is just too much for you to drink, green tea capsules can be an easier way to get your anti-oxidant boost. Green tea extract protects against oxidative stress caused by free radicals, promotes healthy cholesterol levels and supports the immune system.

Turmeric or curcumin

Curcumin is the active ingredient in the Indian spice turmeric, often used in curry. Research suggests that curcumin has powerful antioxidant properties and promotes healthy cellular division. It is known for strengthening the immune system and research suggests that it supports liver detoxification, thus speeding excretion of toxic compounds. Laboratory experiments at MD Anderson Cancer Center showed it to be a powerful agent against cancer cells.[4] The naturopaths at CTCA now incorporate this into their treatment regimen for breast cancer patients. It is available in capsule form.

Flaxseed oil and flaxseed lignans

Much has been said about flaxseed oil and flaxseed lignans, both of which I have added to my daily diet. The alpha linolenic acid in flaxseed oil has been shown to have suppressive effects on breast cancer cells. My naturopath says that this makes sense especially for the estrogen-sensitive cancers. It theoretically binds to the estrogen receptors and decreases the proliferation of breast cancer estrogen sensitive cells. Flaxseed oil is relatively inexpensive and can be easily added to the diet.

Extensive research on flax can be found in the book Preventing and Reversing Breast Cancer Naturally—A Science-Based Nutritional Approach to Protecting Yourself From Breast and Other Cancers by Dr Thad Mauney Ph.D. published in 2008.

1. Sari Harrar and Sara Altshul O’Donnell, The Woman’s Book of Healing Herbs, Healing Tonics, Teas, Supplements, and Formulas (Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1999), p. 24.

2. See “Herbs With Estrogen Action May Raise Cancer Risk,” at Herbs with an estrogenic effect include red clover, saw palmetto, and rhodiola rosea root. If your cancer is estrogen-sensitive, carefully read the ingredients of any herbal remedy you are thinking of using.

3. For a discussion on the scientific evidence for the use of melatonin in cancer treatment, see Murray, How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine, pp. 242–44.

4. Dianne C. Witter, “Can a Common Spice Be Used to Treat Cancer?” OncoLog, Vol. 52, No. 9, September 2007.


Excerpted from A Journey through Cancer, by Neroli Duffy