Essiac: Nature’s Cure for Cancer

Claims of Essiac Tea

This tea is commonly high on the list of many holistic practitioners. Many common claims you’ll hear include “it’s an antioxidant with anti-cancer effects, is anti-inflammatory, strengthens the immune system, and detoxifies the body”. Essiac tea is also said to remove wastes, permit cellular renewal and revitalize health. Some have also tried using it to treat other serious health problems like gastrointestinal diseases, diabetes, and even AIDS. Most are instructed to take it on an empty stomach and that the dosage depends on the condition. For example, take three ounces three times per day for cancer. Others proclaim that “Caisse didn’t make a penny on it” to “there have been cases where doctors can’t find any cancer and they can’t explain it”.

It is not uncommon to be instructed that you must not use chemotherapy and radiation therapy at the same time as drinking the tea, since it may interfere with immune system function, and thus it may prevent Essiac from being effective. However, the makers of Essiac tea state that the products can be used with other therapies concurrently.

How the tea made it to the market…

After the closure of her clinic, Caisse formed a friendship with Dr Charles Brusch, who was once the personal physician to JFK. Dr Brusch decided to try to help patent the tea with her. They choose to make it as close to the original eight-herb formula as they could, to provide it just as the Indians had originally. In 1977, Caisse sold her recipe to a Canadian company, Resperin Corp, who attempted to commercialize it as a medicine, but the company was unable to show any efficacy of the product against cancer when given the opportunity to do so by the Canadian government. The product is now marketed as a dietary supplement.

In 1978, Rene Caisse passed away leaving her full eight-herb formula with Dr Brusch. Shortly after, a radio producer and broadcaster, Elaine Alexander, interviewed Dr Brusch a few times. They formed a friendship due to their shared interest in the tea and 1988 they legally became partners. The Essiac recipe was sold again in 1992 and the company produced what is now known as Flor Essence Herbal Tea. It is also marketed as a dietary supplement, since it is subject to much looser regulation, and is not required to show any proof of effectiveness. This decision was made because both the US and Canadian governments refuse to approve Essiac as a medical treatment since there is no data to support this.

You can also find forty different versions of the tea (some formulations may also contain watercress, blessed thistle, red clover, and kelp) or even purchase a variety of Essiac supplements. This is the story of a woman named Rene Caisse. For more than 50 years until her death in 1978 at the age of 90, she treated thousands of cancer patients, most of them written off by doctors as terminally ill, with her own secret formula. She called it Essiac — Caisse spelt backwards — and she brewed the tea herself, alone in her kitchen. Her patients swore by her. Men and women who believed she cured them of cancer, told their friends and families, wrote letters to politicians, swore affidavits, testified before the Canadian Parliament and pleaded with Rene to supply them with more Essiac.

Husbands and wives of patients who died wrote Rene letters thanking her profoundly for making life easier – free of pain- and longer for their loved ones. Her funeral in Bracebridge, about 170 km north of Toronto, was attended by hundreds of people including former patients Rene had treated for terminal cancer as far back as the 1930’s and who were still on their feet to bury her and tell their stories. The controversy Essiac inspires has raged in Canada since the 1920’s every few years in the public glare of the press, involving the highest medical, legal and political circles in Canada.

But always that controversy centred on this one woman in the tiny village of Bracebridge, pop 9,000 or so. Rene Caisse was an unlikely public figure. She was a skilled nurse who didn’t crave attention or money. “I never had $100 I could call my own” she used to laugh. She didn’t charge a fee. She accepted only voluntary contributions — fruits, vegetables or eggs as often as not — from those who could afford them, and she didn’t turn away people who couldn’t make any payment at all. The mayor of Bracebridge, Jim Lang, gave me a friendly greeting, said he was happy that someone was looking into the story of Rene Caisse, and got right to the point: She cured people that were given up on by doctors – totally given up on. They said, “You’re going to die and there is nothing we can do about it. And then they went to Rene and 20 years later they were still walking. We know that for a fact because I knew Rene for probably 25 years.”

She refused to reveal the formula to the Canadian government, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York — the world’s largest private cancer research center — and the National Cancer Institute, just to name some of the institutions that wanted the formula at one time or another. She wouldn’t give them the formula until they would admit that Essiac had merit as a treatment for cancer. They refused to admit any merit until she gave them the formula. There were legitimate arguments made on both sides. The result was a tragic standoff.

On top of the lack of scientific evidence, there is also no evidence the tea is a First Nations remedy or from any Native American culture. Overall, there are more testimonials than conclusive scientific studies. Many Internet pages selling the tea contain inaccurate claims made through anecdotes. At best you’ll get a new tea to drink, and at worst you’ll spend unnecessary money, while possibly experiencing some uncomfortable side effects.