Dandelions: cancer cure…or not?

ILLUSTRATION BY R. GARY RAHAM "Here's to dandy cancer cures!"

A North Forty News reader afflicted with a large swelling in his parotid gland (a major salivary gland located on either side of the mouth and in front of both ears) faced the prospect of cancer. An X-ray technician confided that he thought it might be cancerous, but before a biopsy could be taken our reader happened to spy an article about dandelions in the May 2016 issue of the paper. The article cited scientific studies published in the International Journal of Oncology and the online journal PLoS One suggesting that dandelion leaf tea and dandelion root extract might have significant cancer-fighting potential.

Our reader figured he had nothing to lose. He drank gallons of dandelion root tea over a week’s time. When he saw the doctor, the swollen gland had disappeared and a biopsy was not considered necessary. Had the dandelion tea cured cancer? Had the swollen gland been caused by something else and disappeared on its own? We often tend to link events in cause and effect relationships that don’t exist, like breaking an ankle while falling off the curb trying to insure that a black cat doesn’t cross our path.

In this era of “fake news” it never hurts to examine our assumptions and predispositions.

Most medicines have been refined from natural sources. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, a natural pain reliever. In 1899 Bayer performed a little chemistry on that basic compound to produce acetylsalicylic acid—a.k.a. aspirin. William Withering discovered the heart medicine, digitalis, in the common foxglove. The list goes on…

The scientific name for dandelions, Taraxacum officinale, translates from the Latin as “official remedy for disorders.” This would seem to imply that dandelions had a reputation for healing powers at least as long ago as 1780 when botanists officially classified the plant. Various sources claim that dandelion tea is a good diuretic, can aid liver and stomach conditions, and—when splashed on the skin can remove wrinkles and age spots.

But cause and effect is hard to nail in place unless you control for as many random variables as possible. That’s the beauty of the scientific method. Set up an experiment in such a way that you control all the environmental variables except whatever you are testing for and provide a control population to see what happens without the test procedure.

One scientific study often referenced is a 2011 Canadian paper that tested the effect of dandelion root extract on human skin cancer cells (melanomas). See ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3018636/ As a result of this study, performed with the proper test setups and controls, researchers concluded that “treatment with this common, yet potent extract of natural compounds (the dandelion root extract) has proven novel in specifically inducing apotosis (cell death) in chemoresistant melanoma, without toxicity to healthy cells.”

In 2008, another study showed dandelion root extract effective against certain breast and prostate cancer cells: spandidos-publications.com/ijo/32/5/1085. So far, relatively few scientific studies exist that test dandelion root extract for its cancer-fighting potential. No one at Colorado State University, for example, is working in this field. The studies that have been performed seem to suggest that dandelions may harbor some bioactive compounds that could be the cancer medicines of the future.

No handful of experiments can PROVE, of course, that dandelions cure cancer—of any kind. Science has a way of frustrating many people who expect and sometimes demand a certainty that no scientist can provide. The beauty and elegance of the scientific method is asking nature one “yes” or “no” question at a time under controlled conditions to help clarify at least some of the cause and effect relationships we think we see in the real world. The answers science provides in the lab (often framed as probabilities) must still work in our messy and complicated daily lives. Simple laboratory answers usually morph into “maybes” that reflect individual human differences and processes that must operate under real world conditions.

That said, it’s fortunate our reader spotted the article on dandelions and took action that may have helped him. When faced by choices limited by money, happenstance or whatever—and a cancer-induced deadline darkening the future—most people might understandably make the same decision—whether the science was absolutely clear or not.

1 Comment

  1. Good article–should be mandatory reading in schools and for adults to learn about the scientific process and how, just because someone *thinks* they benefited from a substance, doesn’t mean it necessarily was the cause unless it can be validated in other ways. Too much misinformation out there, especially on health issues, and people not understanding how verifying a treatment works.

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