It’s breast cancer awareness month, a time to ignite discussions and shed light on this critical subject. Fortunately, this creates a platform for many individuals to be aware of their health and seek medical help; it also raises funds to aid treatment and research. So hold your pink ribbon high and clear for everyone to see as we take an interesting angle to potential breast cancer therapies in the form of medicinal plants.
The review paper (Akram et al. 2017) that we’re dissecting states that searching for cancer cures in plants is actually not all that new. The National Cancer Insitute began exploring botanical anti-cancer medicines in 1961 and have since then discovered quite a few promising candidates that we’ll discuss. And we’re going to start with something that’s… okay not really a plant but actually a fungus! Lingzhi, scientifically Ganoderma lucidum, is a kidney-shaped entity that kind of looks like a mini roof growing out of tree bark. Its reputation as the go-to herbal medicine for immune deficiencies has prompted researchers to use it in cancer research. While the exact mechanism behind its powers is unknown, Jiang et al. (2004) observed its suppression in breast cancer. Further study describes a handful of biochemicals such as ganoderic acid and ergosterol peroxide that seem to block the invasiveness of breast cancer.
Okay, we said plants, let’s talk about plants. Viscum album, more commonly (and festively) known as mistletoe has long been discussed in the field of cancer biology. It was initially thought to help in cancer therapy because it’s actually a parasite in itself and can kill its host cells – be careful while kissing under the mistletoe this Christmas! On a more serious note, the idea behind this was that its parasitic activity could potentially turn on cancer cells and eliminate tumors (Ernst 2006).
Another incredibly beautiful European plant is the pot marigold, Calendula officinalis. The leaves of this plant possess anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer elements that specifically treat vaginal cancers. Breast cancer and gynecologic or uterine cancers have a lot of overlap, especially genetically. This prompted researchers to observe the marigold’s effect on breast cancer and have noticed something pretty useful. Pommier et al. (2004) state that this plant helps alleviate a particular side effect created by the irradiation treatment for breast cancer – acute dermatitis or more commonly, the skin rash.
Even some fruits have anti-cancer properties. Bitter gourds may be widely disliked because of its obvious bitterness but should be appreciated for its biochemical characteristics against cancer. This fruit is used in a variety of Asian cooking for its tangy acidity; the chemicals behind this zing flavor are the very same weapons against cancer cells. A study conducted on human breast cancer cells found that these acids decreased cancer cell growth and caused apoptosis (cell suicide) in cancer cells (Ray et al. 2010).
This article only touches the tip of the iceberg regarding anti-cancer plants. Chemicals derived from plants, plant metabolism, and various components of plants have shown results against cancer cells. You may be thinking then, if science shows us promising results with plants against cancer, why do we not hear about a cure? Why do we still fear this degenerative disease, why do we lose people to it despite all these medical advancements? The science is just way bigger than what we know. Cancer is incredibly complicated and also highly variable between the different types and areas. Bitter gourd may contribute to one aspect of treatment; it may kill off some cancer cells, but possibly not enough. Mistletoe could parasitically infect cancer cells but perhaps it’s not strong enough to overcome other influences. There are numerous factors, chemically, genetically, environmentally that form a complex network that leads to the prevalence of this disease.
“Are we to lose hope? Of course not.”
Are we to lose hope? Of course not. Cancer research has not only discovered potential therapy avenues, it has also successfully created advanced and noninvasive diagnostic methods, improved early treatment, and cleaner therapies overall. With the current technology we have with CRISPR and genetic tools, cancer cures may be right around the corner. In the meantime, let’s talk more about cancer research and spread the word on hidden cancers such as breast cancer.
Finally, here is a breast cancer self-examination guide for women. One of the main goals of breast cancer awareness month is for individuals to understand the early symptoms to seek medical help at the right time. Be sure to share this valuable information, it could be all the difference.
Akram, M., Iqbal, M., Daniyal, M., & Khan, A. U. (2017). Awareness and current knowledge of breast cancer. Biological research, 50(1), 33.
Ernst, E. (2006). Mistletoe as a treatment for cancer. BMJ, 333(7582), 1282–1283. doi:10.1136/bmj.39055.493958.80
Jiang J, Slivova V, Harvey K. Ganoderma lucidum suppresses growth of breast cancer cells through the inhibition of Akt/NF-kappaB signaling. Nutr Cancer. 2004;49:209–16.
Pommier P, Gomez F, Sunyach P. Phase III randomized trial of Calendula officinalis compared with trolamine for the prevention of acute dermatitis during irradiation for breast cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22:1447–53.
Ray B, Raychoudhuri A, Steele R. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) extract inhibits breast cancer cell proliferation by modulating cell cycle regulatory genes and promotes apoptosis. Cancer Res. 2010;70:1925–31.