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No evidence Essiac tea ‘cures cancer’

“Native American Tea Cures Cancer,” reads the headline of an article on the website Wise Mind Healthy Body. It gives the recipe for “Essiac tea”, which it describes as a “simple inexpensive four herb tea that cures cancer”. 

“For over 50 years, a humble nurse used the tea successfully with many terminal cancer patients from her clinic in the tiny Canadian village of Bracebridge, north of Toronto,” says the article. 

The article has been shared over 61,000 times on Facebook. But do its claims stand up to scrutiny?


No human trials conducted on Essiac tea

According to the US National Cancer Institute, “supporters of [Essiac tea] say that when the herbs they contain are mixed in exact amounts, the mixtures make the immune system stronger, have anti-inflammatory effects (decrease swelling, redness, and pain), and show anticancer activity”. 

But Dr Leon Marais, a specialist clinical and radiation oncologist at the Oncology Centre in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, told Africa Check that no human trials have confirmed this.

“There have been some trials by leading research institutes on Essiac’s interactions with human cells and cancers. These trials have not had consistent outcomes and in some cases the Essiac appeared to stimulate the growth of human cancer cells,“ he said. 

“It’s worth pointing out that human cancer cells in the controlled environment of a laboratory sometimes behave very differently to the way it would in a living human being. If there are already conflicting results in the laboratory, then any possible beneficial effect is likely to be wiped out in the uncontrolled human environment.”

Prof Janet Poole, principal paediatrician and head of pediatric haematology and oncology at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, said that more testing was needed.

“We need well designed clinical trials to test Essiac and its herbs. Only then will we know if Essiac works or is safe for people with cancer.”

Natural remedies may not be safe

Both Marais and Poole advised people not to use Essiac tea.

“I would not recommend using Essiac tea to a cancer patient, in fact I would actively discourage it. Some naturopathic practitioners might promote its use, but it has no role to play in the management of cancer,” Marais said. 

Poole warned that herbal treatments may interfere with normal medication and cancer treatments or have side effects. 

“Just because a remedy is reported to be natural, does not mean it is safe.” – Mandy Lombo


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