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Keep informed on current news in the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Home > Newsletters > January 2008 > Chinese Medicine and Cancer Care

Chinese Medicine and Cancer Care

By Efrem Korngold, LAc, OMD and Harriet Beinfield, LAc

Every medicine emerges out of the interaction between biology and culture. Medical practices are the product of a social, political, and economic milieu, shaped by customary habits and traditions, many having little to do with science, evidence, or even medicine itself.1  Chinese traditional medicine has been shaped through continuous use by what is now one-quarter of the world’s population. For more than 23 centuries, the people of China have used it to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease as well as to foster health.

In modern Western medicine, the mechanistic, quantitative constructs of science prevail, whereas in the traditional medicine of China, organismic,2 qualitative schemata describe individuals as resilient, dynamic ecosystems. Whereas the focus of medical science is upon the pathologic entity, Chinese traditional medicine draws upon a nature-centered cosmology that emphasizes the relationship between the seed and the soil: what is it about the terrain that permits cancer, or any disease, to take root?

Since the time of its origins 3,000 years ago, Chinese medicine (Zhong Yi) has been used for the treatment of tumors, identified in antiquity as liu yan, meaning lumps as hard as a rock, or as zhong yang, meaning inflamed ulcers. Over the course of these millennia, various strategies have developed, ranging from:

  • Reducing pain, swelling, inflammation, and tumor mass;
  • Improving host resistance through the use of Fuzheng Gu Ben therapy, meaning to strengthen what is correct and secure the root, which in modern language means to preserve immune competence and enhance the function of the internal organs to counter chemotherapy-induced immune or myelosuppression;
  • Potentiating the effects of conventional radiation and chemotherapies;
  • Preventing, controlling, and treating the adverse effects of conventional treatment, including fatigue, weakness, gastrointestinal distress, loss of appetite, nausea, emesis, and leukopenia.

In 1999, a San Francisco population-based study indicated that 72% of women with breast cancer used at least 1 form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM).3 While few abandoned conventional treatment, only half reported the use of CAM to their physicians.4 An understanding and appreciation of Chinese medicine may lead to greater comfort on the part of providers ill at ease with the use of therapies about which they have neither training nor experience. This in turn may lead to
improved doctor-patient communication and cooperation.

Because Chinese medicine appears to protect against the damaging effects of chemotherapy and radiation, it increases the likelihood that patients will suffer less during, and recover their health after completing these therapies, enhancing quality of life. Chinese medicine treats the patient as well as the disease.

There are various approaches to the subject of how Chinese medicine treats cancer, and an equivalent number of languages— one expresses how Chinese medicine understands the body and thinks about what we call cancer, using its own traditional vocabulary that has endured over centuries; another is scientific, reporting research findings on the use of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, describing them in modern neurophysiological and biochemical terms.


Derived from the word malign, meaning harmful or malevolent, malignant means that which may cause mortal damage. In Chinese medicine, mortal damage is a consequence of the disorganization and separation of yin-yang (jing-shen, blood-qi)—a threshold beyond which the organism is unable to sustain harmony and integrity. Cancerous masses, lumps, and tumors are the consequence of unmitigated accumulations of qi, moisture, and blood that have become toxic, transforming what is healthy into morbid tissue, simultaneously obstructing and usurping normal circulation. Prolonged stagnation eventually leads to depletion of qi and blood, and ultimately essence. Because essence governs growth and maturation, loss of or damage to it can result in a disregulation of growth typical of cancer, a process of uncontrolled proliferation of immature, undifferentiated, malformed cells. Therefore, treatment that supplements qi, moisture, and blood; restores circulation and eliminates stasis; removes toxins; replenishes essence; and dissolves masses is critical in the treatment of cancer.

As early as the 11th century BCE, descriptions of tumors were inscribed on oracle bones and turtle shells. Certain doctors specialized in the treatment of these lesions, referred to as liu, meaning tumor, derived from a word meaning stuck. Around 200 BCE, during the Han Dynasty, tumors became known as hard lumps or ulcerated lesions. Both benign and malignant masses were further differentiated anatomically as ulcers or abscesses that arise between the muscle and bone (yen, ai, chu); carbuncles (yung) that appear on the surface of muscles and skin; and hard obstructions (cheng chia) that arise in the internal organs. In the
12th century, the term ai, another expression for inflamed ulcers, became synonymous with that for cancer. Comparable to identifying contemporary early warning signs, traditional doctors noted the severity of swellings, lumps, and masses, their depth (skin, muscle, bone, viscera), density and firmness, mobility, color, heat, presence of fluid or pus, and the severity, quality and variability of pain and other sensations such as itching and burning in formulating the diagnosis of malignancy. 5

Classical and modern writings regard the etiology of most serious disorders, including benign and malignant tumors, as stemming from internal injuries, emotional trauma, invasion of pathogenic factors such as heat, cold, dampness, dryness, or the accumulation of toxins, often due to improper digestion and poor elimination of metabolic wastes. Jia Kun, a Chinese traditional medicine oncologist writing in 1980, says that whatever upsets normal body function can lead to tumor formation, causing cancer. Tumors are the end result of a prolonged process of accumulation and densification of tissue due to the persistent stagnation
of qi and blood, which, if unrelieved, becomes toxic, critically damaging
the healthy function of the organ systems.6

C.S. Cheung explains the relationship between generating blood and circulating it, preventing both deficiency and stagnation: “The essence of fluid and grain [nourishment from food and drink] infuses into the meridians and forms ying qi. It then circulates to the heart and enters the blood. The blood flows to every part of the body and moistens and lubricates all the tissues. When there is insufficiency of ying qi, the distribution of qi is endangered. Thus, the blood does not flow smoothly, encouraging the formation of blood stasis and ecchymosis [blood that congeals outside the vessels]. New blood is unable to be generated when obstructed by stasis and ecchymosis. Consequently, therapeutic measures are taken to remove the obstruction and generate new blood.” Cheung recommends that herbs such as angelica, salvia, and millettia be
used, explaining that the herb millettia treats both deficiency and stasis because it both engenders and circulates blood.7


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