Essiac is perhaps the most popular of all alternative treatments for cancer. It is a simple and relatively inexpensive herbal treatment, usually taken as a specially brewed tea, that requires little commitment from the patient. Perhaps this accounts for some of its popularity.
The question as usual is: “Does it work?” Based on discussions on various Internet forums, I am rather skeptical that it works very often, if it works at all. Many people report using it or plans to use it, but few, if any, credible reports of benefit have surfaced. Surely if Essiac were highly effective then, given its great popularity, there would be many credible reports of success. On the other hand, I have never seen any report of toxicity from oral Essiac, so I suspect that it is a relatively safe treatment. (There have been reports of two deaths from injection of Essiac – don’t even think about it!).
To my knowledge there are no published papers or published detailed clinical data, so, as far as I know, there is no scientific data to suggest it works on human cancer. There have been lab reports suggesting that some of the herbs used in Essiac may have anti-cancer effects, but keep in mind that many, many plants have some components with anti-cancer activity in various lab tests. If this were enough to demonstrate that an herb is a miracle cure for cancer, miracle cures would be a dime a dozen!
So if there isn’t good scientific data, what about anecdotal cases? I think that that cases can provide evidence in a limited way (See my Article on Evaluating Alternative Therapies for more on this.) Many of the articles I have read cite a few anecdotal cases, but in my experience most of these cases are either inadquately documented or, (and this is quite common) the patient had concurrent conventional therapy. Often, the conventional therapy is played down as something which could not possibly have been responsible for the good result, and in fact it is often true that such a good result would indeed be quite rare with conventional therapy. But even when the prognosis with conventional therapy is quite grim, a few (sometimes a very few!) patients may have an extraordinary response. Given that Essiac is so popular, it isn’t surprising at all that there are patients with a poor prognosis who used Essiac along with conventional therapy and who did much better than expected. Although it is also possible that Essiac did help these patients, you really can’t tell, so this type of case is not good evidence for Essiac.
While there is probably little harm in using Essiac tea, no one should rely on Essiac as a primary therapy for cancer – the evidence just isn’t there.
Online Information on Essiac
The best web site I have seen is Anne Harris’ Essiac Information. This is a determinedly non-commercial and intellectually honest collection of links and articles. Anne has no axe to grind and she links to both pro and con sources of information on Essiac. In the end she does not come to a conclusion either way. That is left up to you. The “pro” information often includes anectdotal cases as the evidence that it works. You may find it interesting to try to evaluate these cases in the light of the ideas I discuss above.
The Truth About Essiac, on an esoteric site called Sumeria, contains some skeptical information that debunks some of the claims commonly made about the history of Essiac, in favor of another version of the story supporting a different formulation. In fact, there are several competing formulations for Essiac, each of which claims to be the “original” Essiac, and claims that the others are second rate copies. It’s a very confusing situation.
Alternative cancer therapy author and researcher John Boik has a very interesting Article on Essiac on his Oregon Medical Press site, in which he looks carefully at the doses and anti-cancer ingredients in Essiac. He concludes that although some of these herbs have anti-cancer activity, the dose is probably far too low to be effective. He also states that the tea’s “purgative effect” would preclude using the much higher doses one would expect to be required to achieve a clinical effect. John is both one of the most rational people in the alternative cancer field, and a friend of the use of non-toxic natural therapies against cancer, so there certainly is no negative bias here. At the same time, nature is complex and full of surprises, and sometimes the most rational calculations prove incorrect. In the end, as long as there is some plausiblity, its the data which counts. And for Essiac, convincing positive data is exactly what is missing.
This CancerGuide Page By Steve Dunn. © Steve Dunn
Page Created: 1995, Last Updated: December 16, 2001