Herbals and Chemo – on Grey’s Anatomy

I’m a BIG fan of Grey’s Anatomy (not exactly a select group of fans – just a few bazillion of us!).

Thursday’s episode included a story about a woman who was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. They took a sample of her blood, then when she began having problems, whisked her off to surgery. During surgery, those in the room began passing out. Turns out her blood had become toxic from taking herbal supplements which, when combined with the chemicals from the chemo treatment created a deadly combination — for her, and anyone else in the room.

As someone who advises patients on practical issues, I have long touted the need for making sure all your doctors know everything you take. Patients tell me they are afraid of telling their doctors they take herbal supplements or natural remedies, even vitamins or aspirin anything else available without a prescription. That can be so dangerous to our health!! And as I’ve said before — your doctor isn’t there to judge you. S/he is there to assess everything and make his/her best recommendations to you, taking it all into account.

So back to Grey’s Anatomy — is it possible that an herbal supplement would become toxic when mixed with chemo drugs? I checked in on the American Cancer Society’s website and learned this: there are supplements that can interfere with chemo, and there are some that can actually help it. Link to the article I found. I didn’t find anything that could become toxic — but….

The problem is, of course, there isn’t much research out there on supplements — because — who will pay for that research? Unfortunately, research isn’t usually done unless someone (read: pharma companies) can make some money from it eventually by selling whatever they develop. If it’s a natural supplement, it can be grown by anyone — and big pharma can’t make money from it. Therefore….? We just don’t know.

Bottom line – be smart about herbal supplements and natural remedies. Discuss them with your medical care providers and make sure they will be helpful — not harmful.

And if your provider won’t discuss them with you? Find one who will.

So now, shall we discuss how Callie and George eloped in Vegas? 🙂

3 thoughts on “Herbals and Chemo – on Grey’s Anatomy”

  1. The good news is that research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine is growing. There is more and more acceptance for the use of complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies by healthcare providers and this is due in part to increased demand by healthcare consumers. As more research supports the therapeutic benefits of CAM,it is becoming a legitimate and accepted option for therapy.

    Nevertheless, it is good advice to take research that is funded by pharmaceutical companies with a grain of salt and always discuss alternatives with one’s healthcare provider.

    For those who like to track down research studies for CAM options, here are a few good, reliable resources for information:

    National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

    National Cancer Institute (NCI): Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM)

    NIH: Office of Dietary Supplements

    For consumer-friendly alternative medicine information, try:

    As far as the Grey’s Anatomy storyline goes, my guess is that came from the phenomenon reported in this string of New York Times (1994) articles found at: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/health/diseasesconditionsandhealthtopics/cancer/index.html?query=RAMIREZ,%20GLORIA&field=per&match=exact

  2. Thanks Betsy. These are good resources. Your best advice is to make sure patients share everything with their doctors! Grey’s Anatomy showed an extreme, but people get poisoned or injured every day because they don’t know enough about CAM therapies, and they don’t tell their doctors they are using them.

  3. It is not the case that there is no research into herbals. It is just not done by the big guys (it is a threat because it cannot be patented – nature makes it). There is research being done at a number of universities, and some outside the borders of the US because of pressure by pharmaceutical companies to keep their strangle hold on the cancer treatment market.

    I don’t mind warning people to be careful, but there are lots of folks who are doing quite a bit better medically from letting go of the pill pushing doctors and doing research on their own. The brain dead always do stupid stuff — they are the ones who pay because they aren’t thinking, but assuming that all folks who pursue alternative therapies by saying “people get poisoned or injured every day” is simply overstating reality for your own purposes.

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Trisha Torrey
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