The recipe for essiac, an herbal cancer remedy, remained as mysterious as its reported benefits for more than half a century. Rene Caisse, the Ontario nurse who reportedly obtained the recipe from an Objibwe medicine man in 1922, revealed its ingredients a year before her death in 1978. The revelation led to wide availability of essiac through commercial production of the tonic, but proof of its purported benefits remains elusive.
Powers of Essiac
Caisse, who named the tonic after the backward spelling of her name, spent much of her life as a hero to cancer survivors and the subject of scorn by many in the scientific community. She never claimed essiac cured cancer, only that it alleviated pain and, in some cases, produced “miracles” in cancer patients without hope. Some cancer patients given weeks or months to live by their doctors reported being cancer-free decades after using the tonic, according to a 2003 article in The Globe and Mail newspaper titled "What Else Could it Have Been But a Miracle?"
Failed Research Attempts
According to The Globe and Mail article, most attempts to study the anti-cancer effects of essiac failed, primarily because petitions by doctors and cancer survivors asking the Canadian government to research the tonic were rebuffed or because Caisse could not reach agreements with independent researchers. Among noted physicians interested in essiac were Dr. Frederick Banning, the person who discovered insulin, and Dr. Charles Brusch, a physician to John F. Kennedy who treated himself with essiac when he battled cancer.
Recent Clinical Studies
Research conducted since Caisse’s death provides some insight. Herbs used in making essiac possess antioxidant and anti-cancer properties, according to research conducted at the European Institute of Oncology. The findings were reported in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Researchers found that four of the herbs in essiac demonstrated natural powers of protection against cancer. Essiac might also be beneficial in treating breast cancer, although more research is needed, according to a report published in a 2007 edition of the journal Anticancer Research.
The recipe for essiac, kept secret for many years by Caisse, was written down and sworn to in an affidavit by her long-time assistant. The recipe provided by the assistant in 1994 is nearly identical to the one distributed by Essiac Canada International. The homemade version includes four herbs: 6-1/2 cups of burdock root, 1 lb. of sheep sorrel, 1/4 lb. of slipper elm bark and 1 oz. of Turkish rhubarb root. You’re supposed to store the herbs in a glass jar and boil 1 oz. of them in a quart of water, let it sit overnight and then refrigerate.
Although the effectiveness of essiac is largely misunderstood and untested, it appears safe to be taken by most people. Taken in large quantities, it could cause diarrhea or dehydration. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, one of the herbs in essiac, sheep sorrel, may act as a laxative and another, burdock, contains diuretic properties. Burdock also shares chemical properties with daisies, ragweed and chrysanthemum and may cause allergic reactions to persons with allergies to them. It would be advisable to consult with your physician before taking essiac.
- “The Globe and Mail”; What Else Could it Have Been But a Miracle?; Roy MacGregor; Dec. 13, 2003
- “Drug Week”; Essiac Tea Possesses Antioxidant and DNA-Protective Activity; March 24, 2006
- “Drug Week”; Findings From D. Seely and Co-Researchers Advance Knowledge in Breast Cancer; March 28, 2008
- University of Maryland: Burdock
- University of Maryland: Slippery Elm