Essiac is a combination of herbs administered by Canadian nurse Rene Cassie to cancer patients in the 1920’s through 1960’s. Basing her formula on an Ojibwa Indian remedy, Cassie combined secret amounts of four common North American herbs: burdock root (Arctium lappa), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), slippery elm inner bark (Ulmus fulva), and Turkish rhubarb root (Rheum palmatum), the rhubarb root properly dried and aged before use.
These original four herbs are largely non-toxic provided the formula includes the right part of the herb gathered, stored, and prepared under knowledgeable supervision. Burdock root is used as a cereal (gobi), sheep sorrel as an ingredient in salads, and the soothing gel of slippery elm as source of carbohydrate for people with chronic digestive irritation. Rhubarb root is a common laxative in much of the world.
Cassie first learned of the formula from a prospector’s wife she met at a Sisters of Providence hospital in far northern Canada in 1923. As Cassie gave the patient an exam, she noticed a mass of scar tissue in a breast and asked about it. Cassie later reported the woman as saying that she and her husband had immigrated to Canada from England about 30 years earlier. She developed cancer of the breast and had been told by doctors in Toronto that her case was hopeless.
The miner’s wife went on to say that an Indian medicine man had taken her to the woods to show her how to find four healing herbs. She was told to drink a tea made from the herbs every day. Her breast cancer went into remission. Cassie was impressed, but did not do anything until a few months later when she received the news that her mother’s sister had been diagnosed with stomach cancer metastasized to the liver. The doctors had told her there was nothing to be done, so Cassie decided to find the herbs and give her aunt the tea.
The aunt took the tea, went into remission, and lived another 21 years. Cassie sought to have the validity of her formula verified, and was initially thrilled to receive a letter of interest signed by eight doctors with ties to the provincial health authority. Her excitement turned to distress, however, as she was shortly thereafter arrested for practicing medicine without a license.
Cassie continued to offer the formula free of charge to up to 30 patients a day, first from her apartment in Toronto, and, after neighbors objected to the constant traffic of cancer patients, from her homes in progressively smaller provincial towns. After she became impoverished, the town council in Bracebridge offered her a clinic for a rent of $1 a month, from which she continued to offer her formula to thousands of people with cancer, generally with good results. She reported giving it to patients who had rectal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma of the lip, and breast cancer.
Over 380 of her patients traveled to Ottawa in the dead of winter the week after Christmas at their own expense to testify to the Canadian Commission into the Investigation of Cancer Remedies, but the commission, scheduling the hearing for New Year’s Eve, refused to hear most of them and went home early. As a result, Essiac has never been approved as a cancer treatment in Canada or any other country.
In 2007, however, a research team at The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine finally announced a comprehensive study of the biological activity of Essiac:
The researchers found that the formula:
- Exhibits strong anti-oxidant activity.
- Is specifically toxic to ovarian epithelial carcinoma cells.
- Stimulates granulocyte phagocytosis, the process by which the immune system can destroy metastatic cancer cells before they “glue” themselves into new tissues.
- Stimulates the CD-8+ fraction of the white blood cells known as T-cells.
- Relieves inflammation.
- Retards angiogenesis, the process through which cancerous tumors develop new blood supply, and
- Reduces the activity of the liver enzymes CYP1A2 and CYP2C19, which change melatonin into inactive forms.
This study, interestingly, is generally ignored in most of the critical reviews of Essiac. But is Essiac of benefit in cancer? The clinical research remains to be done, but tens of thousands of people with cancer say that it still is. There is one estimate that 15 per cent of women with breast cancer in Ontario drink Essiac teas. The original formula is non-toxic and potentially very useful in cancer therapy, although it can cause mild diarrhea and should not be used by people suffering dehydration or taking diuretics for high blood pressure.