Cope with chemotherapy using TCM herbs in food

SINGAPORE - Breast cancer patients wondering about how to use traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) herbs can refer to a new cookbook, written by cancer doctors and TCM practitioners.

The book, Chinese Herbal Cooking: Your Companion During Cancer, contains information on the health benefits of 12 TCM herbs and how they can be used to alleviate some of the common side effects of treatment for breast cancer.

Breast surgeons from Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and TCM practitioners at its department of complementary and integrative medicine collaborated on the book.

Dr Tan Ern Yu, consultant surgeon from the Breast Clinic@TTSH, said: "We advise patients to use TCM only under the guidance of experienced TCM practitioners. TCM herbs do not replace the need for conventional cancer treatment."

The book grew out of two public forums at the hospital on how TCM herbs could be of benefit to those undergoing cancer treatment.

"These forums were hugely popular and led us to this cookbook," Dr Tan said.

Many cancer patients believe chemotherapy drugs to be so "toxic" that they need other medication or treatment to help them tolerate it, doctors said.

A survey by TTSH doctors on breast cancer survivors found that more than a third of the patients had used TCM while on treatment.

"Many believe that TCM had helped them cope with the side effects of chemotherapy. But most of them either did not tell their doctors or denied they were using TCM," said Dr Tan.

One reason could be that many doctors trained in Western medicine are unfamiliar with TCM and so are reluctant to endorse its use.

There is also a concern, sometimes valid, that certain TCM herbs may interfere with conventional Western medicine.

Furthermore, many TCM concoctions are not well-regulated and may contain undeclared derivatives, said Dr Tan.

It is not uncommon for misinformed women to consult doctors only in the last stages of incurable breast cancer simply because they had been receiving TCM treatment instead of current proven treatment, she added.

While it is true that small studies have shown that certain active ingredients in TCM herbs do slow the growth of cancer cells, there is still no strong evidence to support any anti-cancer properties of TCM, said Dr Tan.

But the doctors felt that it was unrealistic to ignore the use of TCM or to completely oppose its use since this would only lead to more patients hiding their use of TCM from their doctors. Drawing from their experience in dietary therapy, the TCM practitioners selected 12herbs that are commonly used and widely available locally.

There are no studies to show that these 12herbs will not interfere negatively with Western medicine.

But there are also no reports that they have done so, said Dr Tan.

They are believed to help patients cope with the side effects of cancer treatment. For instance, fleece flower root is commonly recommended by Chinese physicians to stimulate hair regrowth after chemotherapy treatment.

Herba dendroii, derived from the dried stems of the Orchidaceae family of orchids that have medicinal properties, can help relieve the sensation of dry throat, dry mouth and excessive thirst common after radiotherapy, and can help relieve nausea and vomiting common after chemotherapy.

"Since we advocate the use of the raw herbs, rather than ready-made concoctions or powders, we have worked with professional chefs from the Paradise Group Holdings restaurants to design 36 recipes that bring out the benefits of these herbs," said Dr Tan.

Three recipes are suggested for each herb - being broadly classified into a main dish, soup and a light snack, dessert or drink.

These recipes are designed for the amateur cook and can be easily prepared at home. No complicated techniques are needed and all ingredients can easily be obtained from supermarkets and Chinese medicinal halls.

The book is available at The Breast Clinic@TTSH, TTSH Complementary Integrative Medicine Clinic (Clinic 6B), TTSH Pharmacy and at selected Paradise Group Holdings outlets. It costs $21.40, inclusive of GST.

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