FondsGoetheanum: Mistletoe


“Anthroposophic cancer care includes other therapies in addition to mistletoe therapy”



Diversity is the secret

It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the toxic effect of mistletoe, which had long remained hidden, was investigated more closely. Through scientific experiments and analysis two groups of toxic protein compounds could be identified: viscotoxins and mistletoe lectins. Both inhibit the rapid growth of tumorous cells, whilst activating and modulating the immune system at the same time. Today they are considered to be mistletoe’s most important “active substances”.
In addition, a number of other pharmacologically active substances have been discovered in the mistletoe plant, all of which may have tumour-inhibiting potential. Some of the cytotoxic effects identified in experiments have been shown to be caused by sugar compounds (polysaccharides). They seem to be associated with strong immunostimulant effects.
The liposoluble substances in mistletoe are of particular interest. They cannot be made into ordinary aqueous extracts. In antiquity the fatty components of mistletoe were isolated and used as birdlime. Resinous components were found in this very sticky substance: as many as seven different triterpenes as well as steroid compounds.
The antitumoural activities of some of these compounds, used as pure substances, have been well investigated in pre-clinical experiments. First treatments with an ointment based on this resinous mistletoe substance have shown promising results in patients with basal cell carcinoma.  
Any attempts to use extracts of individual constituents of mistletoe in cancer therapy have failed, proving the superiority of the whole-plant extract. The diversity of active components contained in mistletoe seems to form the foundation for its therapeutic effect on cancer patients.

Dr. sc. nat. Konrad Urech

Exploring the therapeutic potential

The therapeutic powers of mistletoe in conjunction with adjunct soft therapies can make a positive difference.

Much has happened in the treatment of cancer. At the turn of the twentieth century radical surgery was introduced in order to deal with an ailment that had been known for several thousand years. It was obvious, however, that the removal of tumours alone could not heal this disease of the whole organism. Surgery nevertheless constitutes an essential therapeutic step in many cases of cancer.

Arresting tumour growth is often not enough

Chemotherapy does not affect the physical manifestation of the disease but its proliferation. Cytotoxins (literally “cell poisons”) are employed to restrain the pathological growth – a method that is often successful, particularly in children, but comes with severe side-effects. Again, it is true to say that cancer cannot be conquered by inhibiting its growth alone.  With many kinds of cancer the prognosis can only be marginally improved by using chemical agents. But there are also cases where chemotherapy saves lives; they include some cancers in childhood, testicular tumours and many forms of lymphoma. Unfortunately, many of the most common kinds of cancer remain incurable.
The search has continued: entirely different drugs are used now which not only arrest but control growth and have an influence on inflammatory and immunological processes. A great number of antibody-based therapies and immune checkpoint inhibitors have been developed. They start from a different angle: a cancerous growth has detached itself from the organism and its formative forces.  One could say that the tumour has become blind to the integrating influence of the living organism and lives a life of its own. These independent growth processes can be manipulated by antibody-based therapies. A big question remains, however: how can the organism be helped to recognize this malignant tissue again as something “foreign” and to develop an intensive inflammation to defend itself against this organism within the organism?

Controlling proliferation

It has long been known that fever and inflammation can overcome cancer. At the turn of the twentieth century the American surgeon William Coley already treated patients according to this principle and achieved astonishing results. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, pointed out that warmth and fever are needed to overcome this “cold” disease. Some of the modern drugs have been developed on this principle and can induce a sometimes impressive inflammation and fever. Their use needs to be monitored by experienced professionals. The inflammation is able to recognize foreign growth and may even “overcome” it. The big challenge is to work out how the organism, in addition to overcoming the foreign tissue through inflammation, can learn to control the formation of this tissue which can reach a weight of several kilograms?
Finally, this “catastrophe of form”, as it is sometimes called, also needs treating. It needs new formative and differentiating influences because the tumour destroys the individual human form. It is experienced as “malignant” and frightening because it constitutes an existential threat to the individual.
What can Anthroposophic Medicine do to help? Interestingly, mistletoe therapy unites the whole range of treatments that have been developed over time: it clearly kills cells. It could even be developed into a chemotherapeutic drug. But it also promotes inflammation, and inflammation can overcome cancer.
With mistletoe therapy, a temperature, even a high fever, can be induced in patients. It therefore combines growth-inhibiting and immunological effects. As a healing plant, mistletoe is evidently a therapeutic answer to cancer. The active, febrile stage of mistletoe therapy is followed by a regenerative phase during which patients recover, their appetite improves and their mood lightens. New courage is instilled in the patient and new perspective of active involvement open up.

Mistletoe preparations improve and prolong life. © Jürg Buess

But can mistletoe therapy make a difference to the prognosis? From the trial with pancreatic cancer (page 3) we know that mistletoe therapy can prolong survival. While many earlier studies and patient reports have suggested this, it has now been confirmed by large-scale trials.
Anthroposophic cancer care includes other therapies in addition to mistletoe therapy: nursing applications, body-based therapies such as Rhythmic Massage, eurythmy therapy, art therapy, but also psycho-oncological counselling are part of its integrative approach.

Combining mistletoe and other therapies

The importance of these “soft” therapies is well documented today: it has recently been established that lung cancer patients who suffer from depression have a less favourable prognosis than those without depression. It has also been shown that the prognosis is improved when the depression disappears. Therefore not only the body and its life processes need to be treated and supported but the mind and soul as well.
This is why anthroposophic oncology brings a multimodal approach to the treatment of cancer, including a diversity of therapies that support the patient in body, mind and soul.

Matthias Girke MD