Opinion » Antidote

Steeped in Secrecy


A woman I work with at the dry cleaners is fighting cancer, but I don't remember what sort (I'm embarrassed to ask again). The reason I'm writing is that in her lunch she brings one of those kid's Wonder Woman thermoses with a cancer tea called Essiac in it. When I ask her if she thinks it's working, she just shrugs her shoulders. Is this tea approved for cancer treatment and is there any evidence that it works?


The tea called Essiac is made from a blend of herbs originally produced and promoted in the 1920s by a Canadian nurse named Rene Caisse. Not by coincidence, Essiac is the nurse's name spelled backward. It is indeed fortunate that other inventors have not undertaken this particular conceit. Otherwise, we'd all be reading by the light of Noside bulbs while wearing our Nilknarf bifocals and snacking on Revrac butter and jelly sandwiches.

The chronicle of this particular cancer remedy begins with a patient of Caisse who claimed to have been cured of breast cancer many years prior. She told the nurse her only treatment had been an herbal potion given to her by an Ojibwa Indian medicine man. As the story goes, Caisse sought out the formula and, ultimately, was entrusted with it. Until she closed her doors in 1942, she provided the treatment to her patients (often at no cost) in an Ontario clinic. During the next 35 years or so, she mixed and dispensed the remedy for another health center, always keeping the exact formula her little secret.

Just before her death in 1978, Caisse sold the rights to Essiac Canada International, a company that still claims its products contain the one true formula. Fairly consistent recipes for the tea are now freely available (though accuracy cannot be certain) and more than 40 essiac-like products are marketed by other companies. Use is widespread: A 2000 study showed that at least 15 percent of Canadian women with breast cancer use Essiac. Another study showed that about 10 percent of U.S. participants in cancer clinical trials supplement their treatment with the tea.

There are four herbs in the recipe provided to researchers: a large amount of burdock root, and lesser amounts of slippery elm (internal bark), wild sheep sorrel and Indian rhubarb root. In the home preparation, these dried herbs are boiled and steeped, then filtered and bottled. An ounce or so of this solution is mixed with hot water and consumed twice each day. Early on, when claims of miraculous cancer cures were somewhat permissible, tea directions included an imperative to avoid all other therapies during the one- to two-year treatment. No such directive exists any longer; Essiac has been downgraded to a mere "herbal supplement" and is not approved as a cancer treatment.

Caisse described her anti-cancer theory for the tea by suggesting that all cancer cells circulating throughout the body will be drawn into the main tumor, enlarging it, thus allowing the remedy to shrink it out of existence. A convenient explanation for tumors enlarging under her care, but 30-some years of research since has demonstrated nothing of the sort. In fact, no human or animal studies have appeared in any peer-reviewed journal documenting even the smallest anti-cancer effect. Individually, however, each herb has shown at least some positive results in laboratory cell cultures--but the same encouraging news is true of many plant extracts.

So what's the harm in a cup of tea? Probably nothing--the only side effects noted are rare cases of nausea or vomiting. In fact, a retrospective study of 86 Canadian cancer patients has indicated a probable psychological or emotional benefit from drinking this tea. Perhaps the act of participating in one's own treatment can be of some comfort, even if the direct effect is negligible. And though the chance of any physical benefit is remote, the risk is tiny and herbs are cheap (about $60 per month prepared, much less if made at home). I cannot blame your co-worker for her benign faith in the tea; I might actually try it myself given the same unfortunate situation--though I'd probably use my manlier Spiderman thermos.

Considering the state of medicine in the 1920s, Essiac tea might have seemed like an attractive treatment for many incurable conditions. And by naming it after herself, Caisse will always be remembered by medical historians. I suspect, however, if I tried to do the same and market my own "Nibar tea" in today's skeptical world, I'd still be driving around in my 1988 two-door Drof Escort.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your Nilknarf bifocals and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).