How herbs really can help

Natural remedies can't cure cancer, but they can treat the symptoms, says Dr Jo Walker. If only her colleagues knew more about their uses. By Clare Dwyer Hogg

A few years ago, a young man in his twenties came to see Dr Jo Walker, his GP. He had recovered from testicular cancer, and stopped taking his cocktail of anti-cancer drugs without realising that one of the tablets he had been prescribed was Valium. "Because he just stopped, he went totally off the rails," Dr Walker says. He had a psychotic episode, was deported from abroad where he was living at the time, and put into a psychiatric unit. Fortunately, the doctors in Britain realised what had happened, put him back on Valium, and he went to Dr Walker to try to come off it gradually. "It was a long, slow process: we substituted herbs like valerian for Valium, and it was successful," she says.

A few years ago, a young man in his twenties came to see Dr Jo Walker, his GP. He had recovered from testicular cancer, and stopped taking his cocktail of anti-cancer drugs without realising that one of the tablets he had been prescribed was Valium. "Because he just stopped, he went totally off the rails," Dr Walker says. He had a psychotic episode, was deported from abroad where he was living at the time, and put into a psychiatric unit. Fortunately, the doctors in Britain realised what had happened, put him back on Valium, and he went to Dr Walker to try to come off it gradually. "It was a long, slow process: we substituted herbs like valerian for Valium, and it was successful," she says.

Dr Walker is particularly interested in using herbs to help treat symptoms that are associated with cancer, but emphasises that herbs are not a cure. Last week, scientists warned of the health risks for cancer patients who place their faith in alternative "cures", mostly bought over the internet. But while herbs cannot cure cancer patients, says Dr Walker, they can help to treat them - not least for the side effects of mainstream medical treatments. "It's really about the concomitant effects of having cancer," she says. "Most people who are taking a cancer cure take it by mouth. If they have indigestion, they'll have nausea, which is going to affect their recovery because they can't take the drug or it's not being absorbed properly."

Depression, too, is a natural and common reaction when people discover they have cancer. Dr Walker has used lemon balm, St John's wort and vervain to help patients, and has found they work. "I see people who are anxious, depressed, having PMT or prostate problems," she says. "If you've got lung cancer, say, it doesn't stop you getting prostatitis." And if she can help with herbs, she will. "They work very well, and the side effects of natural pharmaceuticals appear to be a lot fewer than with synthetics."

It's not a field with which many doctors are familiar, and Dr Walker admits that her feet were also once firmly in the sceptics' camp. "I was a traditional GP," she says, "and if I was asked about herbs, I tended to say, 'Mmm, yes, they probably don't do you any good'." But she's not a traditional GP now. She had a stroke in 1997 that stopped her working for two years. While she was recovering, she began to study herbal remedies: "It's my biggest qualification, being a patient. I know what it's like to be unwell and worried," she says.

As Dr Walker recuperated, she did a course in herbal medicine, helping out friends along the way who had various ailments. Word of mouth spread, and people began to pop in to her for advice about which natural remedies they should try. "Amazingly, people started to get better," she says. It was all very low-key, until her local palliative-care team asked her to come and speak about her work. "The nurses were very interested," she remembers, "but threw their hands up in despair when I started talking about what to mix with what, and what to avoid. They asked me where they could get the information, and there wasn't anywhere really, so I started to make up hand-outs." This was the genesis of her book, which shows how herbal remedies and pharmaceutical drugs can work together if properly researched and handled.

What Dr Walker is especially concerned about is the ease with which patients can gulp down concoctions of prescription drugs without knowing what they are. The effects of high-octane drugs are, of course, an evil with which people are prepared to deal in order to eradicate their disease. The side effects sometimes have to be treated with even more drugs. What is not so well known, however, are the exact ways in which herbal remedies can be used as a substitute for pharmaceutical drugs. "Don't think of them as herbs," Dr Walker says. "Think of them as natural pharmaceuticals." And with any pharmaceutical, natural or otherwise, it pays to be careful - 800mg of St John's wort is, for example, equivalent to 800mg of Prozac, so the dosage should be as strictly monitored as prescribed drugs. Dr Walker was horrified when she saw 1,200mg St John's wort tablets in a health-food shop recently. "The dose is crucial," she says.

But the lack of understanding of the power of herbal medicine is the reason many patients don't tell their doctors they're taking natural remedies, or why some doctors might not take the information into account even if they are told. But some complementary medicines can interfere with cancer, and other, treatments. Dr Walker has this advice: "If someone is pregnant, I tell them not to take anything, natural or synthetic." She adds that some cancer treatments are so strong, Warfarin in particular, that they must be taken alone. "No one taking Warfarin should take a herbal product," she says, "because it interferes with anything, cranberry juice even."

While Dr Walker still prescribes conventional drugs, she is convinced that herbal remedies are having the desired effect. She has, however, had mixed reactions from her fellow-professionals. "Some are supportive and interested. Some are sceptical, and a few are downright antagonistic," she laughs. But she's not fazed. "I believe what patients tell me. If they came back saying it was a load of rubbish, I'd re-evaluate what I'm doing. But I've been doing this for nearly 10 years. Even today, I've seen a number of people, and they have all come in smiling."

'Cancer: Herbs in Holistic Healthcare', by Dr J Walker, is available from Amberwood Publishing (01634 290115), £15.99

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