Giving Cancer Patients a Boost with Ginseng

The upside of being an oncology nurse is that you get to meet some wonderful patients. Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and caring for one such patient--we’ll call her, "Missy." This patient had a diagnosis of AML (acute myelogenous leukemia), which is how I, an inpatient nurse at the time, had the privilege of caring for her throughout her treatment.

Missy allowed me many opportunities to really learn a lot about the side effects associated with cancer treatment, and how to treat them in the most natural/organic ways possible. The thing I learned most was the use of ginseng for treatment-related side effects. I know that when a diagnosis is made, patients often turn to anything and everything to help cure or treat the disease, or its side effects.

Missy experienced fatigue in between and during chemotherapy treatments, and verbalized this complaint to her supportive care doctor. The supportive care doctor recommended to her that she try taking ginseng and see if that would help her. Missy did have more energy, so she added the ginseng to her daily medication regimen. The doctor did warn the patient that there was potential for increased bleeding when her CBC (complete blood count) laboratory levels decreased following treatment. Because of this new (to me) information, I decided to do a little more research on how ginseng could benefit our cancer patients.

There are two main types of ginseng supplements: American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), which may help boost the immune system, lower blood sugar levels, improve mood, boost endurance, and treat fatigue—all of which are common issues. Unfortunately, ginseng is not found naturally in any food source, so it must be taken as a supplement. Besides pill form, ginseng may be found in some "natural" energy drinks and is sometimes added to foods.

Our patients require education before taking this supplement. First and foremost, patients should never take it without an approval from their doctor, especially those patients taking antidepressants, antidiabetic agents, and/or anticoagulant therapy. The side effects from ginseng are generally mild, but can include insomnia or nervousness, as it has a caffeine-like effect. Also, ginseng should never be used for more than 3 months at a time. American ginseng can be estrogen mimetic, so it should be avoided by those with hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast and ovarian cancers.

I will forever consider myself blessed to have met Missy and to have learned so much from her. I'm also grateful to have learned that ginseng can be such a great addition to cancer treatment as long as there are no contraindications for its use.

Have any of your cancer patients taken ginseng? If so, what was the outcome?


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