What is Mistletoe Therapy in Cancer Care?

— BY Kayla Adam | Reading Time: 4 min

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Mistletoe may be symbolic of holiday cheer, but now, it’s giving cancer patients something to smile about all year long. As one of the most widely studied alternative medicine therapies in cancer care, mistletoe extracts have shown to limit the debilitating side effects of conventional cancer treatment. In fact, mistletoe therapy is among the most prescribed treatments in Europe for cancer patients.

Now, I know that it might sound bizarre that mistletoe — the same plant many drape from their doorways around Christmas — can be a leading cancer treatment. But would you believe me if I told you that mistletoe is classified with a select few ancient herbs and botanicals that have been proven to treat pain symptoms for centuries? Here’s how mistletoe therapy works in modern cancer care.

What is Mistletoe Therapy?

Mistletoe therapy is a complementary cancer treatment derived from the mistletoe plant. There is a specific extract in mistletoe plants, called mistletoe lectins, that have been shown to offer several different benefits in oncology care. Lectins are a type of naturally-occuring proteins that help protect the mistletoe plant from disease in nature, and early doctors made good use of this ability.

Mistletoe was a popular herbal remedy in ancient medicine throughout Greece, Italy, and northern Europe to treat ailments such as chronic headaches and seizure disorders. In the 1920s, physicians in Europe began to integrate mistletoe therapy into cancer care to alleviate the common side effects of conventional treatment, such as headaches and nausea caused by radiation treatment.

In the last couple of decades, mistletoe therapy made its way over to North America, where researchers quickly began to investigate the numerous physiological effects mistletoe lectins have in patients with cancer. In modern integrative cancer care, mistletoe therapy is administered by an injection under the skin, into a vein, or into a cancerous tumor to limit cancer care side effects.

In the last couple of decades, mistletoe therapy made its way over to North America, where researchers quickly began to investigate the numerous physiological effects mistletoe lectins have in patients with cancer. In modern integrative cancer care, mistletoe therapy is administered by an injection under the skin, into a vein, or into a cancerous tumor to limit cancer care side effects.

Semi-parasite mistletoe white (Viscum album L.) grows on a tree

Why Use Mistletoe Therapy During Cancer Treatment?

Conventional cancer treatment can be very harsh on the human body. While therapies like chemotherapy and radiation are meant to damage (and eradicate) cancer cells, they often cause debilitating side effects. In these cases, patients either need to lower the dose of the medication, which limits the effectiveness of treating the cancer itself, or they must discontinue the medication.

Either scenario can significantly impact cancer treatment.

Your care team wants to administer therapies that can give you better chances of remission and, hopefully, a cure from your cancer — but, we can’t do that if your body physically cannot tolerate them. That’s where mistletoe lectins come into play! There’s copious amounts of research that has conclusively demonstrated that mistletoe is able to help with a variety of different quality of life issues for cancer patients, especially patients who are going through conventional care treatments.

What Side Effects of Cancer Treatment Can It Help?

There are several different types of side effects that can show up quite commonly with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. They range from fatigue, nausea, and vomiting to indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation. Other problematic side effects include nerve damage, issues with focus, memory, and attention span, as well as various types of pain syndromes.

Mistletoe therapy is fascinating because it doesn’t seem to be useful for just one type of side effect. Rather, mistletoe has research in almost every type of side effect that can accompany chemotherapy and radiation. Here are a few side effects I’ve witnessed dissipate with mistletoe therapy.

A sick woman in bed with her partner

1. Lessen Fatigue, Gastrointestinal, and Pain Symptoms

Fatigue is a major side effect that we often see improve quite a bit with mistletoe therapy, along with gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. In a recent global study, 50% of patients with varying stages and types of cancer found relief from nausea after beginning mistletoe therapy. Mistletoe lectins helped improve pain symptoms for another 95% of study participants.  

2. Reduce Mental Health Concerns and Improve Quality of Life

Depression and anxiety are very common side effects while going through different types of chemotherapy. Those mental health concerns compound with the difficulty of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Mistletoe has several clinical trials that demonstrate significant improvements in those symptoms over time. Even social function can be improved by 90% with mistletoe therapy.

3. Heighten Survival Rates and the Ability to Fight Cancer

Certain trials have shown extensions of overall survival when using mistletoe lectins alongside other treatment regimens. Others have demonstrated an increase in the amount of natural killer cells (NK cells) that help the body fight cancer. While individual results will rely on the type and stage of cancer you’re fighting, it’s important to consult with a regulated healthcare practitioner with training in mistletoe therapy, like myself, to learn if it could be right for you.

Closeup of nurse holding patients hand in hospital

How is Mistletoe Therapy Incorporated into Cancer Care?

At Neurvana Naturopathic Medicine, we incorporate mistletoe therapy as a combination approach. It is one of the multiple tools we have at our disposal to complement your cancer care; and we have detailed discussions about the benefits and risks of any types of therapies you may or may not want to use in your care. We take a precision medicine approach for each patient along with their exact type of cancer and individual mutations found inside that cancer to be as specific as possible.

Mistletoe is generally extremely safe, and we guide each patient through a very slow and steady increase in this therapy over time. We monitor progress constantly to determine what types of reactions we’re having to that medication, and over time, we build it up to the point where we’re seeing significant quality of life improvements in those patients — with very little to no negative side effects. Mistletoe therapy can be a powerful tool in your cancer journey to help you feel better.

Is mistletoe therapy right for you?

Mistletoe lectins are a promising, all-natural solution to alleviating the devastating side effects of traditional cancer treatment. Now is the time to learn if it could be the right fit for you.