Under the Mistletoe: Suzanne Somers' Breast Cancer Treatment

From the WebMD Archives

April 4, 2001 -- Actress Suzanne Somers recently revealed that she has opted to treat her breast cancer with Iscador, a drug made from a mistletoe extract.

Somers followed the advice of her physician and underwent surgery to remove a cancerous lump and then radiation therapy to treat any remaining cancer. She is taking Iscador to boost her immune system, says Sandi Mendelson, her publicist.

"Ms. Somers is absolutely adamant that she is not advocating this treatment for anyone," Mendelson says. "It's a totally personal decision. She really urges women to consult their own doctors before pursuing any alternative treatments."

Good advice -- to talk with your physician, says Toncred Styblo, MD, a breast cancer specialist and surgical oncologist at Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine.

"Diagnosis of breast cancer carries a lot of anxiety. Then you have well-intentioned family members and friends advising you what to do," she says. "The key is to be well educated about treatments. The best place to start is with your physician, because they are trained to look at the information and know what therapy is best for each patient."

But what is this drug Iscador, and should other women consider it?

Iscador actually is a trade name for a mistletoe extract, something that has primarily interested German researchers. They have found that the extract kills cancer cells in laboratory studies. Mistletoe extract also has been shown to stimulate the immune system in small human and laboratory studies. However, mistletoe extract is not sold commercially in the U.S. and has not been tested by the FDA, and no clinical trials have been conducted here.

"The information about Iscador is just too preliminary to make any recommendations about its effectiveness," Jeffrey White, MD, director of cancer, complementary and alternative medicine at the National Cancer Institute, tells WebMD. "There is no clinical trial comparing Iscador to conventional treatments."

Women who choose Iscador over conventional, modern-day treatments -- chemotherapy and radiation therapy -- could be jeopardizing their health, White says.

"I would encourage women to look at the much more robust information about the standard therapy, which has been time-tested," White tells WebMD. "We have data about early-stage breast cancer, that chemotherapy decreases recurrence by 50% over a 15-year period. We don't have that kind of data about mistletoe."

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Styblo agrees. "It's not uncommon for patients to ask for my opinion, and I generally tell them they should choose the treatment that is known to have the most efficacy. It's hard for me to endorse something like Iscador that is untested in randomized controlled trials."

Women sometimes search for alternatives because they fear the toxic effects of standard therapies. But many of those side effects are now manageable, White tells WebMD. "There's been much improvement in the past five or 10 years in managing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Nausea and vomiting now is generally well controlled."

"The vast majority of my patients are being actively treated with chemotherapy, and most work full time, have families. It slows them down a bit; instead of burning candle at both ends, they burn it at one end," Styblo says.

Just about the only side effect that scientists have not been able to eliminate is hair loss, Styblo says. "Fortunately, that's temporary, but it probably is the most traumatic side effect."

But if your life is your priority, White stands by available, tested therapies. "In my mind, the pros weigh in for conventional, modern-day chemotherapy and radiation therapy," he says. "The evidence suggests that is definitely the way to go."

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