Chinese medicinal herbs for the treatment of side-effects from chemotherapy in breast cancer patients

Chinese medicinal herbs (CMH) include any mixture of herbal compounds and decoction (the process by which herbs are boiled and remaining liquid used for health purposes), including the development of herbal formulae and injections, and capsules. Although CMH are used to counteract the side effects of chemotherapy (cancer treatment with chemical agents that are selectively destructive to malignant cells and tissues) in patients being treated for cancer, the evidence for their use for women with breast cancer has not been ascertained. The purpose of this systematic review was to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of CMH in alleviating chemotherapy-induced short term side effects for women either undergoing chemotherapy or having recently undergone chemotherapy. Short term side effects are those that occur during the course of the treatment and generally resolve within months of the completion of the therapy and affect up to 60% of patients.They include nausea and vomiting, mucositis (inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract from the mouth down to the anus caused by chemotherapy); neutropenia (a decrease in white blood cells caused by chemotherapy); myelosuppression (a condition in which bone marrow activity is decreased, resulting in fewer red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets), and fatigue (loss of energy and tirdness). This review found seven randomised studies involving 542 breast cancer patients addressing this question. These studies used six different herbal remedies to treat the side effects of chemotherapy, all used CMH plus chemotherapy as the intervention compared with chemotherapy alone. The results suggest that using Chinese herbs in conjunction with chemotherapy or CHM alone may be beneficial in terms of improvement in marrow suppression and Immune sytstem, and may improve overall state of quality of life. However, further trials are needed before the effects of TCM for people with breast cancer can be evaluated with any real confidence.There was no evidence of any harms of CMH.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review provides limited evidence about the effectiveness and safety of Chinese medicinal herbs in alleviating chemotherapy induced short term side effects. Chinese medicinal herbs, when used together with chemotherapy, may offer some benefit to breast cancer patients in terms of bone marrow improvement and quality of life, but the evidence is too limited to make any confident conclusions. Well designed clinical trials are required before any conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness and safety of CHM in the management of breast cancer patients.

Read the full abstract...

Short term side-effects of chemotherapy include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, mucositis and myelosuppression or neutropenia. These occur during the course of treatment and generally resolve within months of completion of chemotherapy. A variety of Chinese medicinal herbs have been used for managing these side effects.


To assess the effectiveness and safety of Chinese medicinal herbs in alleviating chemotherapy-induced short term side effects in breast cancer patients.

Search strategy: 

We searched The Cochrane Breast Cancer Specialised Register (15/02/2007), The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL); (The Cochrane Library 2006, Issue 4); MEDLINE (1966 to December 2006); EMBASE (1990 to December 2006); and Chinese Biomedical Literature (2006, Issue 4). A number of journals were hand searched.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials comparing chemotherapy with or without Chinese herbs in women with breast cancer.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently extracted the data, which were analysed using RevMan 4.2. For dichotomous data, we estimated the relative risk. For continuous data, we calculated the weighted mean difference.

Main results: 

We identified seven randomised controlled trials involving 542 breast cancer patients undergoing or having recently undergone chemotherapy. All studies were conducted and published in China. We did not pool the results because few studies were identified and no more than two used the same intervention. All were of low quality and used CMH plus chemotherapy compared with chemotherapy alone.

CMH combined with chemotherapy showed no statistically significant difference for the outcomes of phlebitis and alopecia. Only one study showed an improvement in nausea and vomiting, and in fatigue. Three indicated an improvement in white blood cells in the group receiving CMH. Two showed an increase in percentage changes in T-lymphocyte subsets CD4 and CD8. One study showed a statistically significant difference for CMH in percentage changes in T-lymphocyte subsets CD3, CD4 and CD8. Two herbal compounds may have improved quality of life. One study reported that CMH may have some effect on reducing toxicity in liver and kidney, but differences were not statistically significant.