Essiac, a harmless herbal tea, was used by Canadian nurse Rene Caisse to successfully treat thousands of cancer patients from the 1920s until her death in 1978 at the age of ninety. Refusing payment for her services, instead accepting only voluntary contributions, the Bracebridge, Ontario, nurse brought remissions to hundreds of documented cases, many abandoned as "hopeless" or "terminal" by orthodox medicine. She aided countless more in prolonging life and relieving pain. Caisse obtained remarkable results against a wide variety of cancers, treating persons by administering Essiac through hypodermic injection or oral ingestion.
The formula for the herbal remedy was given to Caisse in 1922 by a hospital patient whose breast cancer had been healed by an Ontario Indian medicine man. Essiac came within just three votes of being legalized by the Canadian parliament in 1938. Over the years, many prominent physicians voiced their support for the efficacy of Caisse's medicine. For example, Dr. Charles Brusch-a founder of the prestigious Brusch Medical Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a former physician to President John F. Kennedy-declared that "Essiac has merit in the treatment of cancer" and revealed that he cured his own cancer with it. In a notarized statement made on April 6, 1990, Dr. Brusch testified, "I endorse this therapy even today for I have in fact cured my own cancer, the original site of which was the lower bowels, through Essiac alone."
Despite such support, Rene Caisse lived under the constant threat of persecution and harassment by Canadian authorities. Today, Essiac is unapproved for marketing in the United States and Canada. However, Resperin Corporation of Ontario provides Essiac to patients in Canada under a special agreement with the Canadian Health and Welfare department, which permits "emergency releases of Essiac on compassionate grounds" while still deeming it "an ineffective cancer treatment." Another company reportedly has the authentic formula for the herbal remedy in Caisse's handwriting, plus eight of her formula variations for specific cancers, including cancer of the prostate. It recently made Essiac available through various distributors. A number of herbal distributors claim to sell the original Essiac tea. Prospective users should carefully weigh the background of all vendors and examine all claims with caution.
Rene Caisse refused to publicly divulge the precise Essiac formula during her lifetime, fearing that a monopolistic medical establishment would either try to discredit the formula or use it to reap enormous profits. Also, she wanted Essiac safe for immediate use on suffering cancer patients, but medical experts demanded prior testing on lab mice. Caisse repeatedly offered to reveal the exact formula and method of preparation if the Canadian medical authorities would first admit that Essiac had merit in the treatment of cancer. But the doctors and politicians argued that they realistically couldn't give any such endorsement until they first knew what was in the herbal mixture. The result was a stand-off.
The principal herbs in Essiac include burdock root, turkey rhubarb root (Indian rhubarb), sheep sorrel, and slippery elm bark. Burdock root, a key active ingredient, is also a major ingredient of the Hoxsey herbal remedy. As discussed in the chapter on the Hoxsey therapy, two Hungarian scientists in 1966 reported "considerable antitumor activity. in a purified fraction of burdock.1 In addition, as also discussed, Japanese scientists at Nagoya University in 1984 discovered burdock contains a new type of desmutagen, a substance uniquely capable of reducing cell mutation either in the absence or in the presence of metabolic activation. So important is this property, the Japanese researchers named it the B-factor, for "burdock factor."2 Another herb in Essiac, turkey rhubarb root, was demonstrated to have antitumor activity in the sarcoma-37 animal test system. Herbalists, however, believe that the synergistic interaction of herbal ingredients contributes to their therapeutic effects. They point out that laboratory tests on a single, isolated compound from one herbal formula fail to address this synergistic potency.
Through her work with cancer patients, Caisse observed that Essiac broke down nodular masses to a more normal tissue, while greatly alleviating pain. Many patients would report an enlarging and hardening of the tumor after a few treatments. Then the tumor would start to soften. People also frequently reported a discharge of large amounts of pus and fleshy material. Masses of diseased tissue were sloughed off in persons with breast, rectum, and internal cancers. After this process, the tumor would be gone.3
Caisse theorized that one of the herbs in Essiac reduced tumor growth while other herbs acted as blood purifiers, carrying away destroyed tissue as well as infections related to the malignancy. She also speculated that Essiac strengthened the body's innate defense mechanisms, enabling normal cells to destroy abnormal ones as Nature intended.
Even if a tumor didn't disappear, Caisse maintained, it could be forced to regress, then surgically removed after six to eight Essiac treatments, with much less risk of metastasizing and causing new outbreaks. "If there is any suspicion that any malignant cells are left after the operation," she stated, "then Essiac should be given once a week for at least three months, supplying the body with the resistance to a recurrence that is needed."
She wrote, "In the case of cancer of the breast, the primary growth will usually invade the mammary gland of the opposite breast or the auxilla, or both. If Essiac is administered either orally or by hypodermic injection, into the forearm, the secondary growth will regress into the primary mass, enlarging it for a time, but when it is all localized it will loosen and soften and can then be removed without the danger of recurrence."4 Caisse spoke from personal experience, having administered thousands of Essiac injections to gravely ill patients, always under the supervision of a physician.
In 1983, Dr. E. Bruce Hendrick, chief of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, urged Canada's highest health officials to launch "a scientific clinical trial" of Essiac. In a letter to the Canadian Minister of Health and Welfare, Dr. Hendrick reported that eight of ten patients with surgically treated tumors of the central nervous system, after following an Essiac regimen, had "escaped from the conventional methods of therapy including both radiation and chemotherapy."5 Yet today, patients in Canada must go through a bureaucratic maze that makes it difficult or impossible for them to receive Essiac therapy.
The story of Essiac began in 1922, when Caisse, a surgical nurse working in a Haileybury, Ontario, hospital, noticed an elderly patient with a strangely scarred, gnarled breast. When Rene asked the woman, who was nearly eighty, what had happened, the woman replied that some thirty years earlier, she had developed a growth on her breast and an Indian friend had offered to heal it with herbal medicine. This woman and her husband then went to Ontario, where doctors confirmed the diagnosis of advanced cancer and told her the breast would have to be surgically removed. Opting instead to take her chances with the Indian herbal healer, the woman returned to his mining camp and drank the brew daily. Her tumors gradually shrank, then disappeared. Over two decades later, when Caisse stumbled across her in the hospital, she was still totally cancer-free.
Caisse asked the woman for the herbal recipe. "My thought was that if I should ever develop cancer, I would use it," Caisse later wrote.
In 1924, Caisse's aunt, Mireza Potvin, was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the stomach and was told she had six months at the most to live. Remembering the Indian brew, Rene asked her aunt's physician, Dr. R. O. Fisher of Toronto, for permission to try it on her dying relative. Dr. Fisher consented, and Rene gathered the herbs to brew the tea. After drinking the herbal concoction daily for two months, Mireza Potvin rallied, got well, and went on to live another twenty-one years.
Soon Caisse and Dr. Fisher teamed to treat cancer patients who had been written off by their doctors as terminal. Many of these patients, too, showed dramatic improvement. Working nights and weekends in Toronto in her mother's basement, which Rene had converted into a laboratory, she and Dr. Fisher experimented on mice inoculated with human cancer. They modified the combination of herbs to maximize efficacy. It was at this point that Rene named the herbal treatment Essiac (her name spelled backwards).
One of Rene's first cases was a woman who had cancer of the bowel complicated by diabetes. In order to avoid further problems, the patient stopped taking insulin in 1925. Under Essiac therapy, the woman's tumor at first became larger and harder, almost obstructing her bowel. Then, as she continued her Essiac injections, the tumor softened, got smaller, and disappeared. Oddly enough, the woman's diabetes also disappeared during the course of Essiac treatment.
Dr. Frederick Banting, world-famous as the codiscoverer of insulin, reviewed this case in 1926. According to Caisse, Dr. Banting concluded that Essiac must have somehow stimulated the pancreatic gland into normal functioning, thus clearing up the diabetic condition. If this reported result is true, Essiac would appear to have potential in the treatment of diabetes.
Nine doctors petitioned the Canadian federal health department in 1926, urging that Caisse be allowed to test her cancer remedy on a broad scale. In their signed petition, they testified that Essiac reduced tumor size, prolonged life in hopeless cases, and showed "remarkably beneficial results," even where "everything else had been tried without effect."
In response, Ottawa's Department of Health and Welfare sent two investigating doctors armed with official papers to arrest Nurse Caisse or restrain her from practicing medicine without a license. When Rene explained to them that she was treating only terminal cases and accepting only voluntary contributions, the two interrogators backed off. One of them, Dr. W. C. Arnold, was so impressed by Caisse's clinical reports that he persuaded her to continue her experiments with mice at the Christie Street Hospital in Toronto. In that series of tests, mice implanted with human cancer responded to Essiac injections by living longer, their tumors regressing.
In 1935, the Town Council of Bracebridge turned over to Rene Caisse-for one dollar-per-month rent-the old British Lion Hotel for use as a cancer clinic. Over the next seven years, Caisse treated thousands of patients in this building, which had been repossessed by the village for back taxes. This unique arrangement came about after Dr. A. F. Bastedo of Bracebridge referred a terminally ill patient with bowel cancer to Caisse. Dr. Bastedo was so impressed by the patient's recovery, he persuaded the town council to make the hotel building available to Rene.
Shortly after the clinic opened, Caisse's seventy-two-year-old mother, Friselde, was diagnosed with cancer of the liver, inoperable because of her weak heart. One of Ontario's top specialists, Dr. Roscoe Graham, said she had only days to live. Rene began giving daily injections of Essiac to her mother, who had not been told she had cancer. After ten days of treatment, Friselde Caisse began to recover. She regained her full health, with diminishing doses of Essiac, and lived another eighteen years before passing away quietly from heart disease.
"This repaid me for all of my work," Rene reflected years later, "having given my mother 18 years of life which she would not have had. [It] made up for a great deal of the persecution I had endured at the hands of the medical world."6
After word of Caisse's impressive results spread to the United States, a leading diagnostician in Chicago introduced her to Dr. John Wolfer, director of the tumor clinic at Northwestern University Medical School. In 1937, Wolfer arranged for Rene to treat thirty terminal cancer patients under the direction of five doctors. Rene commuted across the border to Chicago, carrying her bottles of freshly prepared herbal brew. After supervising one and a half years of Essiac therapy, the Chicago doctors concluded that the herbal mixture prolonged life, shrank tumors, and relieved pain.