You are probably thinking that a plant is much more likely to be a natural remedy than it is to be a dangerous drug. However, the answer to this question may surprise you. What is the Pacific Yew Plant?
Branch and berry of a common yew at Kew Gardens (Image James Morley, RBG Kew)
History Of The Pacific Yew As A Natural Remedy
The pacific yew is a conifer tree that grows along the pacific coastal regions from Alaska to central California. They can grow to 16 inches in diameter and up to 50 feet tall and can live over 1,000 years.
Native Americans, while greatly respecting the innate wisdom of an organism that lives so long, also used the strong, tough wood of the tree for various objects, such as salmon spears, arrows, bows, digging sticks, paddles, snowshoe frames, spoons, bowls, dowels and combs. They also used the yew as a natural remedy to impart strength, induce perspiration, and treat internal injuries and lung diseases.
The Japanese used parts of the yew plant to induce abortion and treat diabetes. Additionally, various parts of the yew plant have also been used for treating diphtheria, tapeworms, muscle and joint pains (rheumatism), clots, fever, colds, stomach aches, swollen tonsils, epileptic seizures, menstrual disorders, kidney disorders, urinary tract conditions, liver conditions and cancer. It certainly sounds like the pacific yew is rounding out as a heroic natural remedy, right?
Natural Remedy Turned Toxic Drug
Last week, Chris Kilham (“a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world”) published an article on Fox News Health titled “Pacific yew: A potent cancer fighting agent”.
There is an introductory video titled “Chemotherapy from a plant?”, in which Mr. Kilham interviews Dr. Jim Miller, vice president of science for the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. They are walking through the Pfizer sponsored “Wild Medicine” exhibit, discussing different medicinal plants.
Stopping to focus on the pacific yew, Dr. Miller describes the medical history of this amazing plant. We learn that, in addition to making beautiful evergreen holiday wreaths, the pacific yew is the source of the toxic cancer treatment drug, Taxol or Paclitaxel. Like most other cytotoxic cancer drugs, Paclitaxel works by blocking cell division. This process kills both cancer cells and normal, healthy cells alike.
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Taxol is used to treat ovarian and breast tumors, lung cancer, and Kaposi’s sarcoma. After tracing the Pacific Yew’s journey from legendary plant to blockbuster drug, Mr. Kilham turns to describe Taxol’s toxicity and profitability, stating:
The drug is harsh, causing negative effects that include nausea, vomiting, pain in the joints, loss of hair, abnormal bowel function, dizziness, exhaustion, skin rash, chest pain, female infertility, fever and chills. Despite the almost guaranteed pain and discomfort, Taxol is the bestselling anti-cancer drug in all of history, with annual sales topping $1.6 billion, according to NCI.”
In fact, despite it’s natural medicinal properties, the yew plant is rarely used today as a natural remedy. How could a plant, that long ago was used for many natural remedies, lose that use and become one of the most profitable (and toxic) cancer drugs? This is a question that I have often pondered and one that is certainly not unique to this particular ancient natural remedy.
The Natural Remedy Of Olde
This weekend, I attended a presentation in our nation’s oldest city, Saint Augustine, Florida. The presentation was titled “Cure What Ails You: Treatments to Common Ailments in the 1700s”. Master herbalist and Colonial Medicine expert, Kim Welborn discussed the ways in which the Colonial people in early America cared for themselves.
During this time, the normal way of life was what we would call “alternative” today. Everyone lived a lifestyle of wellness; a lifestyle that naturally produced health and prevented disease. How did they do this? They used the plants and herbs all around them as a part of their normal diet and as natural remedies to the common maladies of the day.
They were not dependent on a doctor for their health and well being. They took care of themselves and each other. Ms. Welborn stated that it was rare to find a full-time medical doctor until the middle of the 1800s. In fact, most women of that time considered themselves as the ‘primary doctor’ for their household. They maintained gardens growing most culinary, as well as, medicinal herbs. They knew how to use the plants in their natural, local environment to produce healthy effects for their families.
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This natural, early American lifestyle seems to be an art that is all but lost today. Now, scientific men, thinking themselves to be superior to the wisdom of nature, put forth great effort to replicate the effects of a natural remedy. They extract compounds from various plants, learn to synthetically reproduce them and then inject them into the bodies of desperate individuals, hoping for a ‘cure’ for their disease.
However, most often, we see that man’s feeble attempts to outdo nature are complete and utter failures. These natural plant compounds, such as taxol (little ‘t’), are turned into patentable drugs like Taxol (big ‘T’) and Paclitaxel in hopes of curing cancer.
They do indeed kill cancer cells, along with the patient’s healthy, normal cells as well. This effect, along with the extremely toxic effects of these drugs make for a deadly combination. In fact, it is even being questioned today whether or not people actually die from cancer. In the vast majority of cases, we are never given to opportunity to see because most chemotherapy patients succomb to the toxic effects of the drug first. They are killed by the toxic cancer treatment, not the cancer itself.
I am sure that the life of the American Colonials was not an easy life. It was most certainly a hard life full of many struggles. However, if I had to choose between this modern life overwhelmed by toxic drugs or the simple, natural colonial life, my choice would be the colonial natural remedy life.
Sources for this article:
Earle, C. J. 2008. Taxus brevifolia. Retrieved April 26, 2009 from The Gymnosperm Database
Kim Welborn’s “Colonial Medicine: A Presentation of 18th Century Health Care”. kimwelborn.com