The use of mistletoe in cancer therapy is gaining in popularity – though it is also very controversial
It has its origins in Rudolf Steiner’s 1920s work when he was developing many ideas about medicinal value of plants. His ‘science of the spirit’ (anthroposophy) approach suggested that particular plant species could be linked to specific ailments.
He identified mistletoe as a species that could help with cancer treatment and in the following decades his teachings and suggestions for mistletoe treatments have been substantially developed in mainland Europe, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.
There are now a number of dedicated anthroposophic clinics and manufacturers of mistletoe extracts, using the specific processes suggested by Steiner. The mistletoe treatment is complementary – used alongside and in addition to, conventional cancer treatments. It is not generally used on its own.
Arguments for the treatment
There is now considerable research and many trials that seem to show that mistletoe therapy can be effective. The extracts, which are injected subcutaneously, are thought to stimulate the body’s immune system, and are said to give patients a better quality of life whilst undergoing conventional cancer treatment. The therapy is widely used in continental Europe and is gaining in popularity in Britain and North America.
Anthroposophic researchers have found that mistletoe from differing hosts, and at different times of the year has subtly different chemical properties, and prescribe different variants of extract for each type of cancer.
Some of the active ingredients in mistletoe do seem to have potential use in cancer treatment, with conventional medical research finding that the complex compounds (Viscotoxins and Mistletoe Lectins) found in mistletoe can have specific effects on cancer cells and stimulate the immune system.
Arguments against the treatment
Despite the growing popularity of the treatment there is considerable unease about it in the conventional medical establishment. A key issue seems to relate to why mistletoe? Extracts of many semi-poisonous plants will have significant effects on biological systems, and may affect cancer cells or, in an injected form, affect the immune system. There is an argument along the lines of mistletoe is not necessarily the best plant available and appears to have been selected on a fairly ad hoc basis.
Another major concern is quality of the (admittedly numerous) clinical trials, which are said to not be robust enough and often based on an atypical sample of patients.
Critics are also wary of the dangers of the plant, and warn that it could cause harm. The mistletoe lectins are particularly interesting in this respect. They are similar in structure to Ricin, a lectin from castor oil plant. This lectin, once notorious for its use in the umbrella tip poisoning of BBC World Service journalist Georgi Markov in 1978, has recently been listed in the UK Terrorism Act Schedules, as a possible ‘weapon of mass destruction’ in concentrated form. One of the mistletoe lectins is also listed in the Terrorism Act Schedules (but there’s no suggestion that this has any bearing on cancer therapy!).
Further advice and treatment centres
Confused? Well, this sort of complementary medicine is one where you have to make your own mind up, based on what you have read, and what you are being advised by doctors. There are some resources below if you want to know more:
There is a bewildering array of scientific papers, and a host of popular articles, about mistletoe therapy. Much of the original research is in German.
- There is a good English language overview at the US National Cancer Institute’s pages here.
- The review at cam-cancer.org is a good introduction too. There’s a pdf version here, and the online (regularly updated) version here.
- And it’s worth reading Edzard Ernst’s editorial for the British Medical Journal in December 2006.
There are only a few English language books that deal with mistletoe cancer therapy.
This 2000 book, The Genus Viscum, edited by Arndt Bussing, is a general overview of mistletoe including medical properties.
This 2010 book, Mistletoe Therapy for Cancer: Prevention, Treatment and Healing by Johannes Wilkens and Gert Bohm is specifically about the anthroposophic therapy.
This 2001 book Iscador: Mistletoe in Cancer Therapy by Christine Murphy concentrates on Iscador, the mistletoe extract made by Weleda
Mistletoe medicine manufacturers
Links to some of the complementary mistletoe medicines used in cancer therapy are given below. Their websites (mostly German language) provide a wealth of information on mistletoe therapy.
Mistletoe therapy in the UK
The best source of information for mistletoe therapy in the UK is the Mistletoe for Cancer UK website.
Therapy is available in many clinics in the UK and you may be able to find a clinic near you if you want to find out more. Some NHS Trusts do refer patients to these clinics.
The Camphill mistletoe therapy centre in Aberdeen (Dr Stefan Geider) is one of the leading UK centres. For contact information and an up-to-date list of other centres visit the Mistletoe for Cancer UK website.
Medical advice: Please remember this website is not a medical site, and cannot recommend or endorse any possible treatments. The information here merely outlines past and present thinking on mistletoe in medicine and gives links to further information. Always obtain professional medical advice.