Holistic Cancer Care

An Herbal Approach to Preventing Cancer, Helping Patients Thrive during Treatment, and Minimizing the Risk of Recurrence


By Chanchal Cabrera

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A medical herbalist with a specialty in integrative oncology provides an in-depth guide to practical, solution-focused strategies for using herbal medicines and other natural therapies.

Patients facing a cancer diagnosis often feel at the mercy of an illness they don't understand and in the hands of doctors offering treatments that focus on the cancer, instead of on the patient. In Holistic Cancer Care, Chanchal Cabrera, a consulting medical herbalist with more than 20 years specializing in holistic oncology, provides an in-depth guide to using herb-based therapies in conjunction with conventional treatments. Putting the patient front and center, holistic therapies can help boost the immune system, which can slow the spread of certain cancers and, in some cases, even enhance the cancer-killing effects of chemotherapy. Herbal medicine and other therapies also offer effective ways of dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Drawing from decades of clinical experience helping patients recover from cancer, Cabrera provides a wealth of safe, well-researched information, including specific herbal formulas, important discussions about dosing and safety, detox protocols, recommendations for nutritional supplements, simple recipes for nourishing meals, and patient case histories that demonstrate the power of the strategies she recommends.

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This book is dedicated to my sister, Dee Atkinson—my best friend, my greatest inspiration.


Foreword by Christopher J. Etheridge, PhD, MCPP

Preface: Opening the Door to the Power of Herbs

An Introduction to Holistic Cancer Care

Part 1: Holistic Strategies for Patients and Caregivers

Chapter 1: Understanding Cancer

Chapter 2: Nutrition and Lifestyle Choices to Inhibit Cancer

Chapter 3: Preparing for Surgery and Enhancing Recovery

Chapter 4: Managing Pain with Botanicals

Chapter 5: Thriving during Chemotherapy and Radiation

Chapter 6: Materia Medica: A Directory of Herbs for Cancer

Part 2: For the Practitioner and Herbal Prescriber

Chapter 7: Herbal Formulating for Cancer Care

Chapter 8: Diagnosis and Treatment Planning in Collaborative Oncology

Chapter 9: Materia Medica for Managing Cancer: The Cytotoxic Herbs

Chapter 10: Case Histories


References and Background Reading



Metric Conversions

List of Plants by Common Name

List of Plants by Latin Name

Index of Recipes and Formulas for Patient Care


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Interest in holistic medicine has soared in recent years, along with an increase in quality research being published in this important area. There is now an opportunity for patients to work with holistic practitioners to reduce their risk of developing cancer, to obtain support during conventional cancer treatments, and to ensure their return to full health after completion of those treatments. There is a real need for a comprehensive handbook that equips readers with the information to understand and access targeted treatment strategies for holistic cancer care. I was therefore excited when I heard that Chanchal was writing this book.

I first met Chanchal at a conference in London in 2012, where she was presenting a talk on holistic cancer care, and I was impressed with the depth of her knowledge and understanding of the science behind the use of herbal medicine to support cancer patients. Chanchal has more than 35 years of clinical experience, giving her a keen insight into the pivotal role of herbal medicine in the treatment of cancer.

Understanding that patients and practitioners often need different levels of information, Chanchal has divided the book into two main sections. The first is focused on giving patients an understanding of how holistic care can help at every stage of the cancer treatment process—from reducing the side effects and improving outcomes of treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, to managing pain, to enhancing recovery from surgery. Helpfully, she includes an in-depth discussion of some of the main herbs used for cancer support.

The second part of the book is specifically aimed at practitioners. Chanchal shows how to support cancer patients by formulating effective, balanced herbal prescriptions that employ key herbs in a synergistic way, at the correct dosage and in the right form for the individual patient. She highlights vital issues in herbal medicine safety and toxicology, including herb-drug interactions, and provides a comprehensive, fully referenced monograph for each of the cytotoxic herbs. Because she has been practicing in the world of holistic oncology for so long, she's able to include several case histories from her own patients that illustrate the effectiveness of the practices she recommends.

I have been greatly inspired by reading Holistic Cancer Care and am already applying its concepts to my own practice. Chanchal's enthusiasm, knowledge, and vast experience of the practice of herbal medicine in the cancer supportive setting is an excellent resource to have at your fingertips.

Christopher J. Etheridge, PhD, MCPP

Founder and Director of Integrated Cancer Healthcare

President of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy

President of the European Herbal & Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association

Chair of the British Herbal Medicine Association

Preface Opening the Door to the Power of Herbs

As a newly graduated medical herbalist in the late 1980s, I will admit I felt somewhat hopeless and helpless when patients came in with a cancer diagnosis. The extent of their fear, the extent of the medical interventions they were undergoing, and the nature of the condition itself all served to make me feel that there was little I could offer. Even after 10 years of running a busy herbal medicine clinic, I could count just a handful of cancer patients whom I felt I had really helped in all that time.

It wasn't until I enrolled in the Master of Science in Herbal Medicine program at the University of Wales that I began to learn just how powerful herbs could be in cancer support. For my dissertation project, my colleague and friend Donald Yance invited me to conduct research in his herbal medicine practice in Oregon. Donnie had been focusing on cancer care for a few years by then and had just published a book about it (called Herbal Medicine, Healing & Cancer). He wanted research done into quality-of-life parameters in long-term breast cancer survivors in his practice.

The opportunity to be paid to do research that I could use for my degree was irresistible. I moved to Oregon in 2001 to conduct the research and to work alongside Donnie in his clinic, seeing patients and learning from him. It was a deep dive into a world of research I had never seen before and new ways of clinical practice. It was also an apprenticeship with a master. Much of the original inspiration for this book came from my decade of working closely with Donnie in his clinic, helping him create a 2-week professional training in herbal medicine for cancer, and from the research and writing we did together. After 2 years in Donnie's clinic, I had written my thesis ("Living with Breast Cancer"), received my master's degree, and seen beyond doubt that herbal medicine has extraordinary potential to help people survive and thrive through cancer. My clinical practice since that time has evolved to be largely cancer focused, and nothing I have subsequently learned about herbal medicine and cancer care has caused me to change my mind. Obviously, not all my patients survive and thrive past cancer; some come to natural medicine very late in their journey or have particularly aggressive cancers, and some are just too weak and compromised to overcome the disease. However, in every case, whatever the circumstances and wherever they are in their journey with cancer, there is a strong role for herbs, targeted nutrition, and other holistic practices that are useful to promote wellness.

An Introduction to Holistic Cancer Care

Herbal medicine and other natural therapies help people with cancer. They may not be the only thing that helps—in fact they rarely are—but there is no doubt that they have a role to play not only in caring for the long-term, chronic consequences of cancer and conventional treatment but also in the immediate interventions required with a new diagnosis and an active cancer case. People with cancer reading this book will find many recipes, formulas, and self-care ideas that can be implemented safely and easily. For the practitioner, there are guidelines, strategies, and a materia medica that I have honed through the last 20 years of cancer-focused clinical practice and through helping hundreds of patients with natural medicine. Many of the recommendations are for specific orthomolecular or targeted nutritional supplements as well as herbs. Nutritional, nutraceutical, and herbal therapies can be used in conjunction with other specific targeted drug therapies to offer a truly coherent strategy for cancer management.

My goal here is not to convince you that holistic medicine and natural therapies can help treat cancer. If you didn't already know that they work, you wouldn't have picked up this book. My effort here is to help you understand how they work, why it matters, and, most of all, how to use them safely and effectively. This is not a textbook with hundreds of references after each section, but I have given a representative sample of research and studies for those of you who like to look up the details.

The details do matter. I am a strong believer that in order to know how to fix something, you first need to know how it works and how it goes wrong. Understanding what cancer is and how cancer comes about makes it so much easier to understand how to apply useful interventions, be they herbs, drugs, or lifestyle choices. This book describes the mechanisms by which cancer initiates, proliferates, and progresses, and the steps and processes by which it can be addressed.

One of the biggest drawbacks to understanding how herbs and targeted nutrition can work in preventing and treating cancer is that, while we may have decades or even hundreds of years of evidence-based medicine to draw upon, and while there may be great congruence among natural medicine prescribers in how they use remedies, most of the research today is being done on isolates or super-concentrated extracts in test tubes or cell lines or animals—rarely in humans—and is far removed from traditional practices. This often means that contemporary approaches to herbal medicine risk being fragmented or watered down. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to understand at a cellular level how some of our herbs bring about their remarkable effects.

This dilemma of holism and reductionism, and the risks inherent in extrapolating from analytical research to clinical practice, compounded by the sheer inhumanity of the animal research, creates a treacherous minefield for clinicians and researchers trying to find the best and most useful information from among such a plethora of data. In researching studies for this book, I focused on human studies and human cell lines. I mention animal research only where it is particularly pertinent. This is not a perfect solution, I know. It is important for herbal practitioners to share their learning through case reviews (such as the patient case histories in Chapter 10), so that they can contribute to the knowledge base that current research does not always extend to.

How to Use This Book

My intention in writing this book is to provide a useful handbook for a person newly diagnosed with cancer and for their support team, to give practical guidelines and helpful strategies that can be realistically implemented, and to be a guide for safe and effective use of herbal medicine in cancer care by patients and by healthcare providers. The first part of the book discusses healthy lifestyle choices and how to maximize general health, strength, resilience, and resistance measures in your life using herbs and targeted nutrition. Preparation and recovery from surgery, optimizing chemotherapy, managing pain, and a wide materia medica listing of herbs used in cancer care are reviewed in Part 1.

In addition, this book is intended for the practitioner, the healthcare professional who wants to integrate herbal medicines into their clinical competencies. Part 2 of the book is for practitioners; it describes how to formulate with herbs, how to use the cytotoxic herbs, how to use herbs with chemotherapy, targeted nutrition for specific purposes, and case studies from my clinic. There are recipes and formulas as well as extensive resources for finding practitioners and products and a detailed glossary.

A wealth of research and decades of clinical experience have confirmed that there are multiple and overlapping ways to raise the odds in your favor, to support and encourage your body to resist a host of chronic, degenerative diseases, including cancer.

What Is Holistic Cancer Care?

This all-embracing approach to healthcare has classically been called "integrative" or "integrated medicine. In 2017, cancer researcher Ken Witt and his colleagues defined integrative oncology in the following words:

A patient-centered, evidence-informed field of cancer care that utilizes mind and body practices, natural products, and/or lifestyle modifications from different traditions, alongside conventional cancer treatments. Integrative oncology aims to optimize health, quality of life, and clinical outcomes across the cancer care continuum and to empower people to prevent cancer and become active participants before, during, and beyond cancer treatment.

Sounds great, doesn't it? I can agree with all that. But here are some reasons why this term and others commonly used to describe this approach to treatment aren't necessarily the best.

Alternative medicine. This term implies a requirement to choose one or the other, conventional or holistic, a dichotomy that is not useful or appropriate for patients most of the time.

Complementary medicine. This implies a second tier of treatment that is somewhat subordinate to the mainstream conventional therapies, that complements them. This demeans the value of the natural medicines. Notwithstanding these legitimate concerns of etymology, the term CAM, or complementary and alternative medicine, is still widely used and occurs in much of the literature on the subject.

Integrative or integrated medicine. These were the terms I used for many years, on the premise that I was attempting to meld the best of Western biomedical understanding of the body and disease with a deeply rooted holistic materia medica and methodologies, integrating old and new thinking to reach a state of dynamic equilibrium in the clinical practice. Sometimes this requires wearing a more "medical" hat, and other times it means using nutrition or herbal remedies as the main platform of treatment. It worked for me for a number of years, and there were (and still are) a good number of established clinics that refer to themselves as "integrative."

However, more than 10 years ago, my friend Dr. Pierre Haddad from the University of Montreal alerted me to the semantics of these terms and suggested a new way of describing the work. He told me about his ethnobotanical research in First Nations communities of northern Québec, where the Indigenous peoples objected to the term integrated to describe how some of their healing practices could be used and applied in contemporary times. Integration to them had connotations of loss—loss of cultural identity and loss of traditional knowledge, homogenization and weakening of societal bonds. When asked to come up with a better term, they suggested collaborative. This seems to me to capture the intention of my work in supporting patients through cancer. It values, validates, and respects all the protagonists: The doctors and medical specialists, the nutritionist, the counselor, the herbalist, and most importantly the patient are all heard and recognized. Collaborative medicine is a holistic model, and holistic oncology is one area of medicine where this approach or practice of medicine is extremely beneficial to the patient.

Holistic Oncology

Holistic oncology represents an entirely new approach to cancer intervention. It promotes a synergy of traditional healing and wellness concepts, as well as modern science, innovative drug therapies, and unique botanical and nutritional formulations. Working with patients in this model is like fitting together the various pieces of a puzzle; it is interwoven, synergistic, and most of all successful. It does not throw out the old simply because it is old, nor does it neglect effective conventional or allopathic therapies simply because they are not old.

The key word here is effective. A treatment plan should be crafted based on which strategies will be most effective for a particular patient. To that end, practitioners should perform a thorough investigative intake interview and review relevant blood and pathology reports before putting a plan in place. How you measure wellness and how much emphasis you place on quality versus extension of life will be critical factors in deciding how to proceed with treatment, whether herbal or conventional. Treatment choices may change over time as the health picture changes, perhaps starting out with stronger targeted treatments to set back the cancer and progressing to a long-term health maintenance plan over time. The protocol is not something permanent; it must be continually changed, reflecting changes in the individual. It starts from foundation building and sustaining the "vital force," and then various layers and more specific compounds are added.

Conventional Cancer Care vs. Holistic Oncology

Conventional cancer care has historically been a tumor-based model, in which the patient is a passive recipient of oncology care, of invasive and risky surgeries, drugs, and radiotherapy, without much ability to influence or control the situation; holistic wellness support is offered as an afterthought, if at all. This is changing rapidly as evidence of the benefits of a more holistic approach mounts. As such, it is important to seek out the most open-minded, forward-thinking oncology professionals—those who are willing to work with a care team that includes natural medicine providers.

Holistic or collaborative oncology puts the patient at the center of the equation. It considers all health, social, and interpersonal influences that may have bearing on wellness outcomes, including individual tolerance and success of conventional therapies, with due regard for quality of life, not just duration or longevity. It is practiced over a continuum of care, from prevention to palliative care. And it is, by definition, a team effort with members who represent fields of expertise appropriate to the needs of the individual, with everyone providing their best input for the patient. This is my wish for cancer patients, for their caregivers and loved ones, and for all the practitioners who seek to support them.

Tumor-Centered Approach

  • Surgery (outcomes improved by minimally invasive techniques)
  • Chemotherapy (outcomes improved by predictive testing for sensitivity/resistance and with newer, targeted immunotherapies)
  • Radiation (sometimes necessary but not curative, outcomes improved by predictive testing for sensitivity/resistance)
  • Symptom management

Patient-Centered Approach

  • Healthy diet and appropriate supplements
  • Healthy lifestyle and exercise, plus avoidance of toxins
  • Liver support
  • Immune support
  • Stress management
  • Emotional support (family, friends, spiritual)
  • Tumor profile (blood work and primary pathology tests on biopsy slides)
  • Assessment of pharmacogenomics (specialized biopsy slide testing)
  • Sensitivity/resistance testing (fresh biopsy)
  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Symptom management

First Steps after Receiving a Diagnosis

The world of cancer is a scary one. Even though 50–70 percent of us can expect to get this diagnosis in our lifetime, it still comes as a shock when the reality of the situation must be faced. When a cancer diagnosis is received, the ensuing stress and adrenaline impair our ability to make clearheaded and well-considered decisions. The stress hormones cause us to make spur-of-the-moment, survivalist decisions. On top of that, the conventional model is rushed, so there is pressure to start treatment quickly, and any delays are discouraged. Last, but not least, is the fear-based thinking of family and friends who are anxious or distressed if we choose to delay treatment. One of the most challenging issues for the cancer patient can be the well-meaning, well-intentioned person offering unsolicited and ill-informed advice.

Confronting cancer can be a daunting prospect for both the patient and the practitioner. Making sense of treatment options, both conventional and nonconventional, can be even more overwhelming. Few people are prepared to untangle the web of medical jargon and complicated decision-making that accompanies a diagnosis and a long-term understanding of the disease they may have. People want to do "whatever it takes" to "get rid of the cancer," regardless of the consequences and without a true understanding of the impact on their quality or quantity of life. Clear answers are often in short supply.

Take the Time to Consider Your Options

The first step upon receiving a cancer diagnosis is to slow down and take the time to research options and their consequences, consider best practices, and prepare yourself, physically and mentally, to receive treatment. In many circumstances, time is of the essence. However, it's important not to make quick decisions that may have negative outcomes.

The decision about how fast to begin treatment is determined by the biopsy; the higher the stage and grade, the more progressed the cancer is and the more urgent the situation. With the exception of some of the acute cancers like leukemia, by the time a malignancy is diagnosed, it has probably been growing for several years at least. Indeed, some cancers are notably slow growing, for example low-grade prostate cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and low-grade breast cancer, low-grade thyroid cancer, and most nonmelanoma skin cancers; these are extremely unlikely to metastasize and cause systemic harm.

I encourage patients to take at least 2 weeks, or even a month, to sort out their best options for targeted treatment and to pursue additional testing. For example, I may recommend additional tests to evaluate the likely sensitivity of cells to the treatment before patients consider chemotherapy or radiation. Whether or not conventional treatments are chosen, there is much information to be sought—from reading and researching to meeting doctors and other practitioners—and it is important to weigh the pros and cons of different approaches. While this is underway, patients can begin a regimen of restorative, rejuvenating, and balancing therapies.

Health is more than simply the absence of illness. It is the active state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being.

World Health Organization

Get Organized and Empower Yourself

One of the first things I ask my patients to do is to gather all the information I will need to help them make an informed choice about treatment strategies. This will mean asking medical offices for all records and files since your diagnosis and keeping copies of all test results and reports conducted in the future.


  • “Chanchal Cabrera, one of North America’s finest clinical herbalists, helps you to safely and effectively manage the challenging journey to better health.”
     —David Winston RH(AHG), DSc(hc), author of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief
    "Combines traditional knowledge with modern science to provide effective strategies for every stage of the cancer journey. Patients and families, as well as clinicians, will benefit from Cabrera’s thorough discussions, clear, practical guidelines, and wisdom of experience.”
     — Nalini Chilkov, L.Ac, OMD, Founder, Integrative Cancer Answers, American Institute of Integrative Oncology
    Holistic Cancer Care provides not just a thorough foundational understanding of cancer its terminology but practical advice to help anyone with a diagnosis make decisions on subsequent treatment with more confidence. It provides a sense of empowerment by providing the reader with practical advice, knowledge on food compounds, supplements, recipes, simple food guidelines and strategies for optimal success. The cancer Materia Medica and the specialized section for practitioners are invaluable resources.”
    — Carolina Brooks, BA (Hons), ND, IFMCP, Creator of the Vitamorphic Method ®

On Sale
Apr 4, 2023
Page Count
400 pages

Chanchal Cabrera

Chanchal Cabrera

About the Author

Chanchal Cabrera, MSc, FNIMH, RH(AHG) is a medical herbalist who specializes in integrative oncology and has been a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists since 1987. She publishes widely in professional journals and lectures internationally on medical herbalism, nutrition, and health. For more than a decade, she was the faculty chair of Botanical Medicine at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in British Columbia. She lives on Vancouver Island, BC.  

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