In Norse mythology a branch of this famed plant was thrown at the beloved god Baldur who then fell dead, on the spot. For most of us, however, the plant mistletoe is far from being associated with death and is instead a symbol of romance and love at Christmastime.
But in the world of alternative cancer, mistletoe is also a symbol of cancer survival. Let’s take a closer look at how an ancient cancer remedy is still amazing doctors and patients today…
Mistletoe (Viscum album, Loranthaceae) is a semi parasitic plant that grows worldwide in the branches of thousands of species of trees such as fir, apple, ash, oak, elm, poplar, spruce, and pine.
More than 2,000 years ago ancient Greeks and Romans were using mistletoe as an herbal remedy to heal numerous ailments such as epilepsy, menstrual cramps, spleen disorders and as a poultice to treat pain, rheumatic conditions, and ulcers.
The birth of Iscar
An extract of mistletoe was first used to treat cancer just over a century ago by Ita Wegman, a Swiss doctor who created an injectable form, called Iscar.
Since then, it’s become perhaps the world’s most studied complementary cancer therapy and is commonly prescribed for patients by integrative oncologists in Europe. We’ve written about it many times over the last 15 years.
Abundant research in both animals and human clinical studies demonstrates mistletoe’s numerous abilities to combat cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients.
Multiple cancer-fighting benefits
Researchers point to both cellular and animal research as well as human trials of mistletoe to prove that this plant extract can:
- Stabilize DNA in immune cells. Counteracts damage caused by cancer and by chemotherapy drugs to cancer patients’ white blood cells (leukocytes).
- Reduce treatment side effects. Improves the tolerability of radiation and chemotherapy for cancer patients.
- Stimulate immune activity. Increases the numbers and release of different types of immune leukocytes and immune-enhancing cytokines.
- Break down cancer cell membranes. Supports the immune system’s ability to break down cancer cell membranes and clear away cancer cells.
- Lower chronic inflammation. Inflammation has long been linked to diseases of aging as well as cancer development so anything we can do to stop inflammation is a good thing.
- Help block cancer growth and spread. Downregulates genes involved with tumor progression, migration, and invasion, and also blocks angiogenesis (the formation of blood supply to cancer cells) to reduce cancer cell growth.
- Trigger cancer cell apoptosis, the process of cancer cell suicide, and necrosis, a different form of cell death in cancer cells
- Improve patient survival, quality of life.
How does mistletoe work?
While research on how mistletoe achieves all this is ongoing, three natural components appear to be mainly responsible – viscotoxins, lectins, and polysaccharides.
Viscotoxins are small proteins produced by mistletoe that can stimulate the immune system and kill cancer cells by necrosis.
Lectins are complex protein-sugar molecules that bind to cell membranes, including immune cells, to induce chemical changes and provoke apoptosis.
Polysaccharides are complex carbohydrates shown to stimulate immunity and have anti-cancer activity.
To achieve these anti-cancer benefits mistletoe extract cannot be consumed, but instead must be injected to be effective because lectins and viscotoxins are broken down in the digestive tract.
Hundreds of clinical trials
Unlike some alternative cancer remedies, mistletoe is very well researched. There have been hundreds of clinical trials of mistletoe in the treatment of cancer but many of these are not considered up to par by modern day scientists.
For instance, most studies are carried out in German-speaking countries where patients are aware of mistletoe and don’t want to miss out, so many placebo-controlled trials are small and it’s difficult to show a significant impact from the treatment.
Preparations in Europe are also available without prescription and may be taken subcutaneously (under the skin) and in secret which would falsify any trial results. Intravenous injections also cause a local skin reaction and therefore patients know whether they’re in the active or placebo group, so conducting a blind study is challenging.
Mistletoe extracts also come with different chemical compositions depending on the species of tree, country of origin, time of year the mistletoe is harvested and how the extract is prepared.
Even with all these difficulties there’s such a plethora of positive findings that the benefits from using mistletoe to fight cancer can hardly be denied.
The good news is that more recently some larger, better designed clinical trials have been conducted in Germany and the results are exciting.
Improves survival and quality of life
Researchers treated 429 early to late-stage colorectal cancer patients with conventional treatments plus mistletoe and compared them with 375 colorectal cancer patients receiving conventional care alone.
Only 19 percent suffered side-effects from conventional treatment in the mistletoe group compared to 48 percent in the standard care group. Members of the mistletoe group were also 32 percent more likely to still be alive five years after starting therapy.
Lead researcher Kurt Zanker explained, saying, “The results suggest convincing evidence that there is a significant benefit from treatment with mistletoe extract.”
A research review analyzed four studies with a total of 3,324 breast, colorectal, pancreatic or melanoma cancer patients where mistletoe was either added or not added to conventional treatments.
The researchers found mistletoe provided a significant survival time benefit concluding that the “application of mistletoe extracts is an effective treatment” against these cancers.
Many other studies like this show how mistletoe improves survival time. For example, a follow up review in 2020 examined a broader database of 32 higher quality studies with a total of 13,745 patients. The findings confirmed a life-prolonging effect of mistletoe therapy.
Another review, also published in 2020, included 26 studies covering 12 different forms of cancer. Patients receiving mistletoe therapy in addition to conventional treatment enjoyed a “significant” effect on the quality of life compared to controls.
In yet another study that was just published and included 19 trials with over 4,000 participants, the researchers concluded that “Treatment with mistletoe extracts shows a moderate effect on cancer-related fatigue of similar size to physical activity.”
Colon cancer patient makes “full recovery”
When colon cancer spread to her liver, 37-year-old Ivelisse Page was given a short time to live.
Her oncologist, Luis Diaz, an associate professor of oncology in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, wanted her to undergo chemotherapy, but she refused.
Fortunately for her, another one of her doctors, Peter Hinderberger, a specialist in complementary therapies, suggested mistletoe. Surprisingly, Dr. Diaz was open to it, saying, “I reviewed the literature on mistletoe in other parts of the world and there is some acceptance of it. I was willing to work with her.”
Thanks to this open-minded oncologist Ivelisse made a complete recovery. An astonished Dr. Diaz said, “The one thing I noticed was that as soon as she went on it, she started feeling better. That’s a universal feature I’ve seen in all patients who get mistletoe. Their [color] improves; they have more energy.”
After her experience, Ivelisse, who has been disease free since 2008, went on a mission to get the treatment approved in the U.S. by funding human trials.
Despite the huge sums involved, her Believe Big project – https://www.believebig.org/ – raised the money to fund a Phase I trial to evaluate safety and toxicity in 58 patients with advanced solid tumors who have run out of standard options. The trial has been completed but the results have not yet been reported.
We can presume it went well because the FDA has already approved phase II and phase III trials of mistletoe if the money can be raised to make them happen.
Bringing mistletoe to the American public
Dr. Nasha Winters, a naturopathic physician, world authority on mistletoe, physician educator, and author of Mistletoe and the Emerging Future of Integrative Oncology (published February 2022) is advocating for the use of mistletoe in cancer treatment in the U.S.
Like Ivelisse, Dr. Winters is also a terminal cancer survivor and hopes to build a not-for-profit integrative cancer treatment hospital and research institute in Arizona. Access to mistletoe is paramount, as she explains, “we’re now having to send our patients abroad for them to actually get good cancer care. That’s what’s really devastating to me. I want to leave a legacy of changing the care of cancer in this country.”
Of mistletoe, Dr. Winters says it has virtually no contraindications when used with conventional therapies. She believes it should be taken by every patient going through a conventional “standard of care” approach to enhance their treatment experience. Mistletoe also works well with herbal, nutritional and other natural approaches. It works especially well with hyperthermia.
She says mistletoe is “probably the least harmful and least contraindicated substance and therapy I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.”
Of the many cases of successful recoveries from cancer with mistletoe, one highlighted by Dr. Winters is an extremely ill patient considered to have only days left to live. She administered intravenous mistletoe for end-of-life care plus a few other natural therapies. The patient is still alive to tell the tale seven years later.
Doctors using mistletoe in the U.S. as part of an integrative approach can be found at https://terrain.network/
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19883529/ Systematic evaluation of the clinical effects of supportive mistletoe treatment within chemo- and/or radiotherapy protocols and long-term mistletoe application in nonmetastatic colorectal carcinoma: multicenter, controlled, observational cohort study
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550830712001309?via%3Dihub Retrolective Studies on the Survival of Cancer Patients Treated With Mistletoe Extracts: A Meta-analysis
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8985298/ A pilot study of the mistletoe and breast cancer (MAB) trial: a protocol for a randomised double-blind controlled trial
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32690087/ 2020 Quality of life in cancer patients treated with mistletoe: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35239008/Cancer-related fatigue in patients treated with mistletoe extracts: a systematic review and meta-analysis