Down…Not Out

Down Not Out

Fatigue is especially challenging for cancer patients who often find that neither exercise nor rest alleviates the problem. So who could blame them for turning to a drug such as Procrit, which promises to help them find the strength they need?

If only.

Last month I told you about the FDA revelation that there’s no evidence that Procrit reduces fatigue, increases energy, or improves quality of life for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. And when you add the additional disclosure that this extremely expensive drug may actually create health problems when not administered as directed, then cancer patients have all the reasons they need to look for an alternative way to relieve fatigue.

Increasing vitality

Ginseng is widely regarded as an adaptogen, which means it creates little or no side effects while working through the adrenal glands to help the body adapt to and cope with stresses such as fatigue and anxiety.

A new study that examines the effect of ginseng on cancer patients was just presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology about two weeks ago.

Researchers based at the Mayo Clinic recruited more than 280 cancer patients who were all expected to live for at least six months. Subjects were divided into four groups to receive three different daily dosage levels of ginseng (750 mg, 1,000 mg, or 2,000 mg) in capsule form, or placebo. The ginseng used in the study was Wisconsin ginseng, grown from the same crop and tested to ensure uniform potency. The intervention period lasted eight weeks.


  • Subjects who received the 750 mg dose of ginseng reported little improvement in fatigue or general well-being – comparable to the placebo group
  • In the 1,000 mg group, 25 percent reported moderately better or much better fatigue symptoms, with moderate improvements in vitality and well-being
  • In the 2,000 mg group, 27 percent reported moderately better or much better fatigue symptoms, with moderate improvements in vitality and well-being

In a press release, study leader Debra Barton, Ph.D., noted that she plans to begin a new ginseng study next year that will refine these results in hopes of developing a ginseng treatment option for cancer patients who struggle with fatigue.

Raising QOL

Another ginseng study was published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology, and was conducted by a team from the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center – a facility that focuses on an “interdisciplinary approach” to cancer care, treatment and prevention.

Researchers recruited more than 1,450 subjects who joined the Shanghai Breast Cancer Study between 1996 and 1998. Information on the subjects’ ginseng use before and after breast cancer diagnosis was gathered through the end of 2002.

Nearly 30 percent of the subjects were regular ginseng users before their cancer diagnosis. The Vanderbilt team found that these subjects had a significantly reduced risk of death compared to subjects who never used ginseng. Meanwhile, ginseng use after diagnosis was associated with higher quality of life (QOL) scores, especially in the areas of psychological and social well-being. The authors noted: “QOL improved as cumulative ginseng use increased.”

Each of the subjects also underwent some form of conventional cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.

One of the authors of the study – Ziao-Ou Shu, M.D., Ph.D. – offered these two intriguing comments in a Vanderbilt press release:

  • “When patients used ginseng prior to diagnosis, they tended to have higher survival.”
  • “Ginseng use after cancer diagnosis was related to improved quality of life.”

Dr. Shu also noted that there are two primary classes of ginseng: red and white. White ginseng root is naturally dried and is reputed to promote general good health over a long period. Red ginseng gets its color from a drying process that increases potency. This variety is used by some herbalists to aid in disease recovery.

Cancer patients should talk to their doctors before using ginseng to address fatigue.