I consider myself to be adequately unmoronic when it comes to matters of health; I’m no Dr. Oz, but I’m no Dr. Leo Spaceman either. However, last week when a friend of mine mentioned an herbal tea that’s been around for nearly a century and is purported to have miraculous cancer-fighting properties, I felt like a pure-grade ignoramus. She said an acquaintance of hers had started drinking the tea, called Essiac, after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The fact that I’d never heard of it meant one of two things: either I’d missed out on yet another massively important cultural phenomenon due to my own preoccupations with 30 Rock, or the hype about this wonder tonic was just that—hype—and perhaps it wasn’t worth hearing. So I decided to do a little digging and discovered that, whether Essiac is a miracle elixir or not, its story is a fascinating chapter in the quest to conquer the most pernicious disease of our time.
Essiac is a medicinal tea composed of four herbs: burdock root, Indian rhubarb root, sheep sorrel, and slippery elm. Proponents say the tea, when used in a precise combination, strengthens the immune system and improves the body’s ability to fight cancer. As one might expect, these claims are highly controversial; no scientific evidence of the mixture’s efficacy in treating cancer has been found by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Cancer Institute, or American Cancer Society. But that hasn’t stopped countless patients and more than a few doctors from turning to the tea to quell symptoms when conventional treatments fail for almost a century.
As the story goes, the formula for Essiac is said to be an old Native American remedy from the Ojibwa of Ontario. It was first popularized in the 1920s by Rene Caisse, a Canadian nurse. The formula as we know it is named after her; Essiac is Caisse spelled backward. Caisse began exploring the tea’s healing potential after meeting a breast-cancer survivor who claimed it cured her. When Caisse’s aunt was diagnosed with stomach cancer a few months later and the doctors gave her six months to live, Caisse decided to give it a shot and began administering her slightly modified formula to her aunt regularly, with the doctor’s permission. Her aunt lived for twenty-one years after the diagnosis with no recurrence of cancer; from that point on, Caisse was a believer.
Despite skepticism, Caisse garnered enough support from the medical community along with the mayor and city council of Bracebridge to open a so-called cancer clinic there, where she dispensed her formula for free from 1934 to 1942. Riding this wave of support, an unusual bill was introduced in parliament in 1938 to authorize Caisse to use her formula in an official capacity to treat “cancer and conditions resulting therefrom” in Ontario, circumventing protocol and fast-tracking Caisse and her treatment into the medical establishment. The bill failed by three votes. Shortly thereafter, the legislature passed an act to investigate her so-called remedy for cancer, which required that she hand over the formula for inspection. Caisse refused and shut down her clinic. She reopened it briefly, but eventually shut down the clinic for good in 1942 due to what she felt was persecution from the powers that be. She continued to treat patients in an unofficial capacity until her death in 1978.
Caisse’s journals (on which this history is based) were published in the Bracebridge Examiner a year after her death, and in them she reveals that she believed she was at the center of a vast conspiracy on the part of the medical establishment to thwart advances in cancer research: “It is my honest opinion that if apple cider vinegar were found to benefit cancer patients, it would be banned from the public!” she wrote.
Although there have been a few promising studies in animal experiments done on the individual herbs that comprise Essiac, no rigorous human cancer trials on the mixture have been published in peer-reviewed scientific literature, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 1978, Respirin Corporation Ltd., the corporation that bought Caisse’s formula, filed a preclinical new drug submission with the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare and was given permission to conduct studies on human cancer patients. But permission was revoked in 1982 when complications with the formula arose, and the company was dissolved. The NCI reports that no application to study Essiac in clinical trials has been announced in the United States to date.
Nowadays Essiac is sold worldwide as a dietary supplement, which means premarket medical evaluation by the U.S. FDA is not required and specific treatment or prevention claims are not allowed. It remains popular among patients who have tried chemotherapy and radiation treatments to no avail and among naturopath practitioners, but for many who have followed Rene Caisse’s inspiring life, the story remains unfinished. Perhaps one day this ancient remedy will undergo rigorous clinical trials to finally scientifically prove or disprove its healing power and lay the mystery of this Canadian nurse and her wonder tonic to rest.