Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) are often used in managing cancer related symptoms but their effectiveness and safety is controversial.

We conducted this overview of meta-analyses to summarize evidence on CHM for cancer palliative care. We included systematic reviews (SRs) with meta-analyses of CHM clinical trials on patients diagnosed with any type of cancer.

Methodological quality of included meta-analyses was assessed with the Methodological Quality of Systematic Reviews (AMSTAR) Instrument. Fifty-one SRs with meta-analyses were included. They covered patients with lung (20 SRs), gastric (8 SRs), colorectal (6 SRs), liver (6 SRs), breast (2 SRs), cervical (1 SR), esophageal (1 SR), and nasopharyngeal (1 SR) cancers. Six SRs summarized evidence on various types of cancer. Methodological quality of included meta-analyses was not satisfactory.

Overall, favorable therapeutic effects in improving quality of life among cancer patients have been reported. Conflicting evidence exists for the effectiveness of CHM in prolonging survival and in reducing chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy related toxicities. No serious adverse effects were reported in all included studies. Evidence indicated that CHM could be considered as an option for improving quality of life among patients receiving palliative care. It is unclear if CHM may increase survival, or reduce therapy related toxicities.

Evidence showed that the combination of CHM and chemotherapy significantly reduced leucopenia, nausea and vomiting, thrombocytopenia and anemia in NSCLC, gastric cancer patients. It also significantly reduced nausea and vomiting in liver cancer patients. In general, CHM appears to be useful in improving leucopenia, thrombocytopenia and anemia among various types of cancer.

Base on the evidence we identified, CHM may be considered as an adjuvant option to improve QoL among cancer patients.

Chung, V. C.H. et al. Effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine for cancer palliative care: overview of systematic reviews with meta-analyses. Sci. Rep. 5, 18111; doi: 10.1038/srep18111 (2015).