Wong: herbs can fight breast cancer

by Judith Phillips | 10/18/01 5:00am

Each year, approximately 192,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,000 die from the disease. Conventional treatments aren't helping. Is there a way to decrease this number?

Dr. George Wong, the Director of Preventive Oncology Research for the Strang Cancer Prevention Center, says there is. He uses herbal remedies in the fight against breast cancer.

Wong immigrated from Hong Kong to the United States when he was 19. He earned his undergraduate degree from Rice University in 1969 and his doctorate from Harvard Medical School in 1978.

Since 1982, Wong, a full professor at the Cornell Medical School, has put lecturing on hold and has devoted his time to breast cancer research at Strang, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Cornell Medical Center

Wong's cancer prevention program uses Chinese herbs of a "nutritious nature" to strengthen the defense system, improve appetite and soothe nausea, among other things.

Those herbs include ginseng, estragulas, rashi mushrooms and dong guai, among many others.

Due to U.S. law and potential liability, Wong does not use herbs as the primary form of treatment. Rather, he works with oncologists and administers the herbs to patients who are also undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Located in the same place as the Cornell Medical Center, Wong's remedies are integrated with those of conventional medicine.

Patients who go to Wong are thus patients elsewhere and have to pay extra for the Strang program. In comparison with chemotherapy and radiation fees, however, the base rate of $100 per month is nominal.

Those who see Wong are usually referrals, although not from his co-workers in the Cornell Medical Center. His colleagues, says Wong, are largely ignorant of the benefits of herbal remedies and are fearful that the treatments would be ineffective and they would be held responsible. The majority of the referrals come from workers at SHARE, a breast cancer support group located in the tri-state area.

Due to the same fear of liability, insurance companies do not cover Wong's program. As a result, Strang loses money. To Wong, this financial loss is secondary to cancer prevention and the establishment of his program. "I'd rather sacrifice profit for a program I can build up," he said.

Wong notes that due to the recent hype over herbs such as gingko biloba, there is "more awareness as compared with two years ago." Yet patients are still cautious.

Wong has no off-hand statistics regarding the effectiveness of herbal remedies, in part because U.S. law does not allow the treatment of breast cancer through herbs alone. The majority of scientific studies on herbal treatment are published outside of this country.

Yet Wong points to the endurance of herbal remedies for 5,000 years in China as verification of their value. He notes also that instances of breast cancer were much higher in Japanese women in Hawaii versus those in Japan.

Wong discussed primary (pre-diagnosis) and secondary (post-treatment) prevention as well. He likened conventional Western cancer monitoring to roulette, saying that a patient goes to a doctor any number of times and is told that she doesn't have cancer, but then one time, "you have it."

In the way of primary prevention, Wong thus recommends herbs, noting that breast cancer prevention is "not only a physical prevention but a mental one as well."

He cautions, though, that "when it comes to herbs, you have to be careful, because an herb might not be appropriate for a particular individual," due to varying energy levels and different forms of stress.

Dr. Wong will give a lecture today at 8 p.m. in Filene Auditorium.