“Every region of the globe offers us natural healing. When people ate food provided by the Earth without tampering with it, there were fewer cases of cancer.” – Liana Werner-Gray
Cancer is the second leading cause of death due to non-communicable diseases in the English-speaking Caribbean. In 2018 alone, the region experienced close to 112,000 new cases and more than 63,000 deaths (Globocan). Yet despite the projected rise in new cases of 55% by 2040, consistent access to conventional cancer treatment has been beyond the reach of many cancer sufferers and for those with access, extreme adverse side effects and a lack of palliative care have had profound impacts on quality of life. This has created a growing demand for the integration of Caribbean plants and herbs with well-documented medicinal properties as an adjunct to the conventional cancer protocol.*
In the Caribbean, consistent access to conventional cancer treatment is grossly inadequate. Access to palliative care is disturbingly low and more than half of the region lacks the infrastructure to provide conventional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy to cancer patients. According to an article by Kellie Alleyne-Mike in the Journal of Oncology (April, 2018) “oncological staffing within the CARICOM [Caribbean Community and Common Market] full member states is insufficient to meet the demands of the current population.”
The cost of conventional treatments is also highly prohibitive. According to the World Health Organization’s 2019 “Technical report on Pricing of cancer medicines and its impacts”, the high prices for cancer medicines are “impairing” governments’ ability to provide affordable “population wide access” to citizens. Limited economies of scale and poor negotiating power make it highly unlikely that this will change any time soon.
Where conventional treatments have been available, adverse side effects have negatively impacted patients’ quality of life, causing fatigue, bruising and bleeding, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, neuropathy and trouble breathing, among other debilitating reactions.
Surveys indicate that patients and their oncologists are more increasingly pursuing discussions around integrative oncology (combining complementary therapies with mainstream care) which has been reported to decrease symptoms, improve quality of life and provide patients with the opportunity to have an active role in their care, especially in cases in which there is limited access to conventional treatment.
Dr. Michael Walcott, who has been one of Barbados’ preeminent doctors of naturopathy for the past three decades, confirms that “over the past few years there has been a rise in cancer cases in Barbados… but [in comparison to years ago] patients seem to be much more interested in pursuing complementary treatments. Holistic remedies are sometimes the primary course of treatment or, as is more frequently the case, they are integrated with a conventional course of cancer therapy.”
This trend is consistent with a global shift in the use of foods, herbs, vitamins and minerals, diets and homeopathy in medical treatment.. According to Cancer World magazine, “The interest in therapies outside of mainstream oncology care is not limited geographically or among particular segments of the population. In countries in which modern medicine predominates, 40–50% of patients with cancer use CAM [Complementary and Alternative Medicine] therapies outside the mainstream.” In the United States for example, up to 83% of cancer patients have reportedly tried some form of alternative or complementary therapy.
In her book, Cancer Free with Food, Liana Werner-Gray identifies 15 top cancer-healing foods, the vast majority of which are readily available in the Caribbean. These include turmeric, broccoli, dark leafy greens, garlic, mushrooms, ginger, lemon, tomatoes and cacao. She also segments lesser-known nutraceuticals by geographic origin, with a section devoted to the Americas. Werner-Gray shows how an anti-cancer diet can be an effective complement to conventional therapies, providing recipes such as “The Chemo Brain Buster” which can be used to help ease the discomfort of chemotherapy.
The Caribbean is well known globally for its cacao. Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago are major world producers. Ginger is a widely used spice in Caribbean cuisine and in recent years, Jamaica has been revitalising its ginger industry, with a recent report placing its potential value at just under a million dollars. Turmeric is another widely used Caribbean spice, and gives Grenada’s traditional breadfruit ‘oil down’ its distinctive yellow colour. The CARICOM trade in turmeric is valued at approximately $1.07 million annually.
According to the Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, soursop or graviola, which grows wild throughout the Caribbean, has been shown to be “effective against some types of cancer cells”. Sasha-Gay Wright, interim head of the Biomedical Engineering Programme at The University of the West Indies has revealed that Jamaican round-leaf yellow yam has proven to be effective in killing prostate and breast cancer cells. Jamaican Guinea hen weed, which also grows wild throughout the Caribbean, has been found to be 25% more potent against cancer than similar products sold on the international market. The Society of Integrative Oncology has created an evidence-based document on herbs and supplements, many of which grow wild in the Caribbean, that are found to be highly beneficial in cancer care.
For more than forty years, Jamaican doctor Dr. Henry Lowe has studied the effectiveness of Caribbean natural medicinals in the treatment of cancer. Dr. Lowe has reportedly identified molecules in cannabis and the Jamaican ball moss that have been proven to fight prostate cancer and in 2017, Lowe’s company, Flavocure received preclinical trial approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for a cannabis drug called Cresorol for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia. These drugs have been projected to earn in excess of $300 million in their first three years on the market.
While Jamaica has been the most proactive in the area of research and development and partnerships, having begun talks with the Republic of South Africa to collaborate in the production of nutraceuticals, the entire region has been gradually responding to the market opportunity, with many manufacturers, farmers and doctors integrating natural offerings in their products and services.
On the global front, the nutraceuticals industry is projected to experience growth to approximately $317.3 billion by 2024 with a CAGR of 6.8% over the next five years while the market for homeopathic products is expected to register a CAGR of 19% to 2026.
Studies have found that patients who have undergone combined regimens of chemotherapy and complementary therapy have had significantly better outcomes than patients receiving only chemotherapy. A study by Zick et al. in Oncology Nursing Forum reported a positive association between enhanced diet and energy levels during cancer treatment. In 2014, Richman et al. revealed a promising correlation between nutrition and the progression of prostate cancer (JAMA Intern Med). The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research have acknowledged the link between cancer outcomes and diet.
The Global Task Force on Expanded Access to Cancer Care and Control reveals that only 5% of global resources for cancer are spent in the developing world. With the projected increase in cancer cases and tragically limited infrastructure for the conventional treatment of cancer, there is a significant opportunity for the Caribbean to exploit its natural resources first, for the treatment of its own citizens and secondly, for export.
* This article is not intended to prescribe or recommend a course of treatment for cancer. Patients should always consult with their medical practitioner before embarking on any course of therapy.