The herbal mixture Essiac has become one of the most popular forms of alternative and complementary medicines for the treatment of cancer in the past century. Originally discovered by a native Canadian healer, the formula was adopted and promoted by “Canada’s Cancer Nurse,” a woman named Rene Caisse, starting in 1922. Multiple laboratory studies have shown that the individual herbs contained in Essiac — Burdock root (Rheum palmatum), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), slippery elm bark (Ulmus fulva), and turkey rhubarb (Rheum pamatum) – have numerous biological effects, including antitumor, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune boosting properties when tested in standardized, controlled laboratory conditions. However, no compelling clinical evidence has been obtained to support the use of Essiac as a treatment for cancer. Instead, most of the evidence supporting Essiac in cancer treatment stems from individual case reports.

While many of these reports are genuine and do not intend to mislead people, one must be analytical and discerning when reading or hearing these testimonials in which people claim to have been “cured” by Essiac. There is no control or standard for comparison in individual case reports, thus making it impossible to account for all variables and confounding factors. In addition, one cannot know if there is any statistically significant difference in Essiac vs. conventional medical treatment vs. no treatment, since there is no control group for comparison.

One must consider several other important questions when evaluating the validity of testimonials regarding Essiac in cancer (or any alternative therapy for any condition, for that matter):

  • Does this person have cancer proven by biopsy?
  • What other treatment did the person undergo, both past and present?
  • Was there objective evidence that the cancer improved?
  • Is the testimonial on a commercial website?

Does this person have cancer proven by biopsy?

A common refrain among doctors is “Tissue is the issue,” referring to the fact that a biopsy-proven diagnosis is essential to definitively say that someone has cancer. If the person does not have tissue or cellular evidence of cancer, does the person have radiographic or imaging evidence? One cannot evaluate a treatment if the original diagnosis is unclear or unknown. This does not mean that a person cannot have cancer until he/she has a biopsy, but it does mean that one should be suspicious of accounts in which the person’s condition has not been confirmed.

What other treatment did the person undergo?

Many people turn to alternative and complementary medicine when they have a poor prognosis, have an expected poor outcome on conventional medical treatment, or are not deemed to be candidates for standard treatment. This means that many people have already undergone some form of treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery. Additionally, they may also be trying different forms of alternative treatment in addition to Essiac.

Sometimes, people begin taking Essiac tea after receiving a conventional treatment that they do not believe will be successful; then, when the tumor regresses, they attribute the improvement to the Essiac, though the true alleviating factor is uncertain. As previously stated, there is no standardized control for comparison in individual case accounts, making it difficult to know what actually helped the person’s condition. Could it have been the Essiac? Yes, but it could also have been one of the other treatments. There’s also the possibility of synergistic effects when combining different treatments

Was there objective evidence that the cancer improved?

While quality of life and pain alleviation are absolutely important in the treatment of cancer, objective evidence of improvement are important in evaluating cancer drugs. This includes radiographic evidence, improvement on physical exam by a physician, or even significant increase in survival after initiation of treatment. Some alternative practitioners have non-validated tests for cancer evaluation; these should not be trusted over the validated forms of assessment noted.

Is the person providing the testimonial in order to sell a product?

While many people truly believe that Essiac has helped in their fight against cancer, there may have also been cases fabricated in order to sell a product. If a vague testimonial with very few details is found on a commercial website, be suspicious.

One must exercise caution when evaluating individual cases of cancer improvement attributed to Essiac. Many anecdotes are not validated, and may even be the concoction of a marketing agent. With awareness of the problems inherent in evaluating anecdotal cases, though, one can more effectively form an opinion regarding the efficacy of Essiac.