A common weed may hold the key to treating, and possibly curing, some types of blood cancers. Dandelion root may become an inexpensive alternative to chemotherapy and radiation — treatments that both come with unpleasant and grueling side effects.
Non-toxic and nutritive, dandelion’s potential is being explored by cancer researchers in Canada, China, and Japan. Its story is a testament to natural medicine’s vast potential in addressing cancer and other afflictions that elude chemical treatment, while also highlighting how the laws governing the practice of medicine and the approval of prescription drugs have narrowed patients’ options when it comes to treating cancer.
Canadian Researchers Discover Dandelion’s Potential In The Lab
Researchers at the University of Windsor, Canada, were given the go-ahead for clinically testing the effectiveness of dandelion root extract for treating cancer in 30 patients.
The move into the human trial phase comes after lab tests and animal tests found that dandelion root extract was effective in inducing apoptosis, or cell suicide, in tumor cells, while leaving healthy cells alone.
The research, led by biochemistry professor Dr. Siyaram Pandey, will focus on end-stage blood cancers. It will take about one year for the final results to be published. Pandey declined to be interviewed for this article, but he discusses the initial results of the lab research and animal studies in a TEDx talk he gave at the University of Windsor.
“An oncologist introduced me to dandelion root extract,” he says in the video. She had patients who’d had multiple rounds of chemotherapy and refused any more. “She expected they would come back in an ambulance. Contrary to that, they came back on their own,” with very low blood counts of cancer, and they said they were drinking dandelion tea.
“We dug out the dandelion root and just ground it in a home blender with water, made the extract, filtered it, tried to put it in the same Petri dishes where we grow the leukemia cells, and frankly speaking I was not expecting any activity because it was so diluted,” he says. Yet cancer cells started dying, and more importantly, the healthy cells were fine.
His discovery could scientifically validate folk medicine’s long use of dandelion for cancer.
To understand how cancer treatment works, we must first understand what cancer is — damaged cells. Bacteria can be targeted by drugs like penicillin, leaving healthy cells alone, because they are structured differently than the body’s cells.
Cancer cells, however, are our own cells. The problem with traditional cancer therapy is, whatever we design to kill a cancer cell targets healthy cells too, Pandey says. “That’s why we have side effects.”
Cancer starts when a cell’s DNA, its blueprint, gets damaged, which can be caused by radiation, chemotoxins, or a replication error.
There are three safeguard mechanisms when cells get damaged. First, cells try to repair the damage. If there’s too much damage, they are dysfunctional, Pandey says, “and they think, ‘I might become cancerous, good idea, die.’ That is a built-in process to keep getting rid of bad cells in the body.” This cell-suicide is called apoptosis. If neither repair nor apoptosis work, damaged cells go into senescence and stop dividing.
If these three safeguards fail and cells with a damaged blueprint keep dividing, they become a cancerous tumor.
Unfortunately, the current treatments available — radiation and chemical therapy — also cause DNA damage and thus, can make healthy cells cancerous.
In the Petri dishes Pandey and his team found that dandelion caused cancer cells to commit apoptosis while leaving healthy cells alone. They tested the extract on blood drawn from a leukemia patient and on lab rats.
With his published research and support from patients’ anecdotal evidence, Health Canada, the Federal department responsible for governing medicine and health care in Canada, approved Pandey to study dandelion in a human trial. It’s the first natural extract approved for clinical trial for cancer in Canada.
Dandelion Has A Long History Of Use As A Cancer Treatment
Dandelion’s botanical name, Taraxacum officinale, speaks to its use as a medicine — Taraxacum comes from the Greek and means “inflammation curative” and officinale is a common designation for medicinal plants. Its use predates written records.
It’s mentioned in ancient Chinese and Greek materia medica as a liver tonic, digestive stimulant, and diuretic. The entire plant is edible and the leaves have been eaten throughout its vast growing range.
It’s been used traditionally as a blood purifier, liver support, and tonic in traditional Western and Eastern herbalism. Dandelion contains numerous compounds that have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antioxidant.
As a food, it’s very high in vitamin A, potassium, magnesium, and a number of other vitamins and minerals.
“Dandelion is one of those awesome little herbs that we use both in Western and Eastern herbology,” herbalist and acupuncturist Sarah Thompson tells Reset.Me. “Traditional Chinese medicine has used it for thousands of years clinically for dampness and heat — lymphatic conditions — in terms of cancer, things like lymph nodes of the neck and groin (the enlargement of which is one of the telltale signs of lymphoma).”
She says the empirical evidence and traditional Chinese medical theory points to dandelion root being most effective for blood cancer — leukemia — and lymphatic cancer, as well as skin cancer.
In a warning echoed by Pandey during his talk, Thompson cautioned against hunting for a single magic compound in dandelion to extract and concentrate for cancer treatment. While that process may work in the case of, say, extracting CBD from marijuana to treat epilepsy, Pandey warns that dandelion’s compounds have a synergy that make it effective against cancer.
Professionals who use it medicinally — herbalists — have to be very careful about how they administer this ubiquitous plant to clients.
“Legally in the United States, acupuncturists and herbalists are not allowed to treat cancer,” Thompson says. “We can treat the effects of chemotherapy and other side effects of cancer treatments, but legally we are not allowed to treat any form of tumor.”
Herbalists Aren’t Allowed To Treat Cancer In America
Demetria Clark tells Reset.Me that life gave her no choice but to practice herbalism since childhood, and her career has never left that trajectory. She studied under some of the most eminent modern herbalists in the country, started her practice in 1993, and opened her own school in 1998. She’s written four books and taught at numerous universities and hospitals.
Talking about dandelion’s effectiveness against cancer, she’s cautious about her words, prefacing her thoughts with a disclaimer. “I wouldn’t treat someone’s cancer,” she says. “I offer supportive therapy that works with a patient’s treatment protocol.”
Although she’s never lost a client to cancer, she’s very careful about attributing any success to dandelion, or even herbs. She loses touch with clients, after all. And they’re often on traditional treatments — as an herbalist, she just helps “support” or treat side effects.
“I’ve seen dandelion be beneficial in different kinds of cancers affecting lymph function and cervical cancer. The problem is, when you get down to beneficial, you don’t always know what was the one hammer that sunk the nail in the wood,” she says.
“Could it be that it has tons of vitamin A and C? A decent amount of vitamin K, or B6 and B12? And calcium, magnesium and potassium? Or was it chemotherapy? Was it radiation?” she says. “I don’t want to be misleading or inaccurate.”
There’s enough empirical evidence, and enough is known about the plant’s chemical structure, to safely say dandelion enhances the immune system and supports the liver and kidneys with no toxicity and a high amount of nutrition. “I like using it because it’s really safe. I feel safe suggesting it for children, mothers, and when you’re pregnant,” Clark says.
“And it’s plentiful — it’s found almost everywhere. It could be an incredible solution [to cancer] that’s very inexpensive and accessible,” and doesn’t cause side effects.
Clark often works with cancer patients and she understands the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment: mouth sores, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, muscle soreness and weakness, skin integrity issues, kidney and urinary tract infections, swollen hands and feet. Dandelion has no side effects and she uses it to address those issues.
“It’s a natural diuretic, and very soothing on kidneys, bladder and urinary tract. It assists in appetite stimulation” and promotes bile production, “getting digestive juices going.” By supporting the liver, it helps the body detoxify. “You can add dandelion leaves into smoothies or other kinds of cool things, which also help mouth sores and nausea and vomiting,” Clark says.
“It’s one of those herbs that’s looking right at you. When it comes to health and well-being, we’ve forgotten the KISS principle — keep it simple, silly. We’ve decided that the most radical and involved treatment is the best course of action, instead of saying, ‘What’s in our environment?’”
Americans spend billions of dollars each year eradicating this potential cancer cure from fields and lawns. “There’s an industry made to eradicate dandelion, and there are commercials where it’s hitting someone on the head, and I’m laughing — they’re actually hitting them with the cure!”
Allopathic medicine and herbalism don’t need to be in conflict, but allopathic medicine has much more money and power behind it. Dandelion won’t likely get millions of dollars in backing for cancer research if there’s no way to extract a single compound, concentrate and patent it.
If Pandey’s hypothesis is correct — that dandelion’s compounds work together in synergy — it would take non-profit driven institutions to fund the research dandelion needs to enter the mainstream as a cancer treatment. Dandelion is ubiquitous, abundant, cheap, and nontoxic.
Magic bullets don’t usually exist. Rarely does one single compound, medicine, or plant work for everyone. But given dandelion’s nutritional value, medicinal properties, and safety, it’s a plant that nearly anyone can take for prevention, and one with a lot of promise for fighting cancer.