Side effects caused by radiochemotherapy in patients with cancer that affects the head and neck can be significantly relieved by herbal medicine as a complementary treatment, Chang Gung Memorial Hospital said yesterday.
Cancers that affect the head and neck include nasopharyngeal cancer, oral cancer, hypopharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer, and there is a high incidence of these diseases among middle-aged people, said Chen Jiun-liang (陳俊良), director of the hospital’s Chinese medicine department’s internal medicine division.
“Oral cancer was ranked the fifth most common cancer in Taiwan in 2012 with approximately 6,500 people found to have the illness, with 2,500 new cases reported each year,” he said.
“Patients with head and neck cancers receiving concurrent chemotherapy and radiotherapy often suffer drastic weight loss and fatigue that sometimes result in interruptions and delays to treatment. The malnutrition can also compromise their immunity and expose them to higher risks of complications,” Chen said.
They are the direct consequences of adverse effects caused by radiotherapy, including mucositis, xerostomia (dry mouth), dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing) and alteration of taste or smell, Chen said.
“Chemotherapy makes patients experience nausea and a lack of appetite as well,” he added.
Following discussions with and the referral of patients from the hospital’s radio-oncologists, Chen and his Chinese medicine medical team started to offer complementary treatment to patients with head and neck cancers who were undergoing intensive radiochemotherapy lasting six to eight weeks.
Following diagnosis, the team treated the patients with individualized herbal treatments targeting dry mouth, inflammation, mucomembranous reaction and nausea.
“For example, for dry mouth and ulceration of the oral mucous membranes, we prescribe dried rehmannia, scrophularia and ophiopogon. Pinellia and dried tangerine peel help reduce phlegm. Astragalus, poria and white atractylodes are used to combat anorexia and nausea,” the director said.
The team found that those who started herbal treatment at some point during their radiochemotherapy did not lose as much weight. They lost about 5.43kg on average, which was 2kg less than the 7.63kg-loss experienced by patients who were not on the herbal medicine regime.
“The difference is statistically significant,” Chen said, adding that patients who had received complementary herbal treatment for the whole course of their radiochemotherapy lost 3.77kg on average, an outcome that further supported the benefits of herbal treatment.
The study also showed that appetite improved in patients receiving herbal treatment.
Chen said that the patients were all from the hospital’s “Chinese Medicine Ward” and were provided with professional diagnosis and individualized doses.
“Self-use of these herbals for the treatment is not encouraged,” he said.
The team’s study was published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies last year.