Ottawa woman says mistletoe helped with her cancer recovery

You may kiss under it during the holidays, but an Ottawa naturopathic doctor says mistletoe — in conjunction with conventional treatments such as chemotherapy — can help boost the immune system and improve quality of life for cancer patients.

Naturopathic doctor says mistletoe, in conjunction with conventional treatment, can ease symptoms

Susie Saghbini says she believes mistletoe helped her recover from Stage 4 cancer. (CBC News)

You may kiss under it during the holidays, but an Ottawa naturopathic doctor says mistletoe — in conjunction with conventional treatments such as chemotherapy — can help boost the immune system and improve quality of life for cancer patients.

"With chemotherapy, it seems to reduce symptoms like fatigue, nausea, neutropenia, some of the issues [cancer patients] commonly deal with," said Dugald Seely, executive director of the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre.

"How in fact that's happening is debatable; I don't think that mechanism is clearly identified. But there is probably the strongest evidence, in fact, around both symptom control and quality of life improvements."

In 2012, 43-year-old Susie Saghbini was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. The disease had spread throughout many of her organs and she was told that she had about six months to live if she wasn't treated.

For the following two years, she was treated conventionally.

'By the end I was falling apart,' patient says

"I had 39 chemos; every second week for a year and a half. By the end, I was falling apart," Saghbini said.

Dugald Seely, a naturopathic doctor, says some studies show that mistletoe can help manage cancer treatment symptoms. (CBC News)
"I couldn't even lower my head without blood rushing out of my nose. Blood vessels in my hands burst. I had a hard time walking because of joint pain from the chemo.… By 39 [chemo treatments], I couldn't take it anymore. I was saying, 'I can't do this anymore.' I was considering just ending the treatment."

After two years her cancer was reduced but still present, and doctors at The Ottawa Hospital's General campus suggested she try alternative methods to offset the side effects of chemotherapy. 

She went to the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, where her treatments included mistletoe.

"Mistletoe has a lot of use, particularly in Germany … and it's been adopted in North America to some degree, probably more in Canada than in the United States," Seely said.

"Its usage is primarily to help support the immune system, and there's evidence that it will support quality of life, particularly during chemotherapy."

Patients inject themselves with European mistletoe extract just below the skin. The treatments costs about $200 to $250 per month.

Mistletoe is not recognized by North American medical associations and the American Cancer Society has said that "available evidence from well-designed clinical trials does not support claims that mistletoe can improve length or quality of life."

Seely disagrees, saying some trials have shown mistletoe to ease symptoms alongside conventional treatments, but he acknowledges that more work and research needs to be done.

Saghbini, meanwhile, believes the mistletoe helped her tumours grow smaller and smaller.

"Things started turning around for me, then all of a sudden it was 48 per cent shrinkage, 38 per cent shrinkage, 30, and it was gone. And it's been over a year since my last chemo," Saghbini said.

"I know in my heart it was the mistletoe. It was the only thing that I changed. I know, I know it was."


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