By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Cancer and Chinese Medicine

I get a lot of people writing to me, telling me that someone they love has been diagnosed with cancer and asking if there is anything Chinese medicine can do. This is a good question, but it has a complex answer. It means looking at a disease like cancer in a completely different way than we have all been taught to look at it through the eyes of science, which is difficult especially if the world science is all you have ever known.

To begin a discussion about cancer and Chinese medicine, we must first gain an understanding of where Chinese medicine came from, the philosophy behind it, and a little bit about how it works. Let us begin.

The Proliferation of Cancer in Modern Society

For at least the last fifty years there seems to have been an explosion in cancers, especially in industrialized nations. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 1,688,780 new cancer cases diagnosed and 600,920 cancer deaths in the US in 2017. According to a WHO report, there has been an alarming increase in cancer rates all over the world. The report also states that:

“Globally, life expectancy has increased from 45 years in 1950 to 66 years in 2000, but the population of the world is aging rapidly—the median age will have risen from 23.5 years in 1950 to 36.5 years in 2050. By 2050, more than 20 percent of the population will be 60 years and over, versus 10 percent in 2000. By comparison, the number of cancer deaths increased by 35 percent during the period 1985-1997. The report states that “[w]hile extending life expectancy is desirable in itself, it is equally important that increased expectancy is accompanied by freedom from any prospect of years of suffering as a consequence of chronic diseases, pain or disability.”

Why is There So Much Cancer?

Why is this? Why has there been such an apparent increase in the numbers of people getting cancer in the world? Perhaps our diagnostic methods have gotten better, and there is certainly truth in that. Perhaps people are taking better care of their health and going for regular checkups more than they have in past years and that is also probably true. But would these factors account for the explosive numbers of cancer diagnoses in the past half a century?

Living in an Unhealthy Way

In my experience and opinion, these are not the main factors contributing to the huge numbers of cancer being diagnosed every year, it is the way we are LIVING. And what you may ask, do I mean by that? Well, that is what I am going to try to tell you. Most human beings on this planet, save a few communities scattered around the world, are living in a way that is not conducive to health. This lifestyle becomes more toxic every year resulting in more disease, mental health problems, addictions, violent crimes, and suicides. We are an unhealthy and deeply unhappy culture.

Chinese Medicine and the Importance of Lifestyle

Our culture, with its ambitions, innovation, and reliance on technology as well as its obsession with bigger, faster and MORE has largely become disconnected from the way we were designed to live on this planet. We have, as a people, become disconnected from our true nature. This idea goes far beyond the reaches of Chinese medicine, this is a human being issue that touches each and every one of us regardless of religion, race, gender or nationality. But for the purposes of this discussion, let us talk about Chinese medicine, and how it views the human being and how it is designed to live in a harmonious and healthy way. I feel like the name Chinese medicine really limits the seemingly endless wisdom that encompasses what it represents. People think, oh yes, Chinese medicine means things like acupuncture and smelly herbs, but in fact, Chinese medicine grew out of Eastern philosophy that had been explored and understood for thousands of years, a wisdom that many people seldom encounter in their day to day lives. Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher credited with developing Taoism (or Daoism) is where much of Chinese medicine wisdom springs from. In Taoist philosophy, the person is connected to every other living creature, the planet and the universe itself. They are all one energy and indivisible. You cannot separate them into parts, or you would be hurting the sum total. Whatever happens to one part, also happens to the whole.

this incredible illustration from

Our Relationship with Nature

What people have been doing (and only really for about the last 10,000 years, starting after the beginning of agriculture by then hunter gatherers), is that we decided in our wisdom that we did not belong in the throng with the rest of the plants and animals, living harmoniously within the perfectly balanced web of life. We began to have delusions of grandeur and wanted more for ourselves. It was at this point in history that people removed themselves from the food chain and started to grow crops, and begin to have more than they needed. This move also began a long descent into a relationship with nature that was no longer symbiotic and mutually beneficial, human beings began to try to dominate and control nature for their own personal gain.

A Medicine of Prevention

According to the philosophy behind Chinese medicine, a person doesn’t wait until they get sick in order to correct the illness. This philosophy teaches a way of life. The philosophy is intensely pragmatic, understanding (in a way that many modern people have forgotten) that living in a healthy way, or preventatively, is a much better approach to health that waiting until things become catastrophic (i.e., a disease) to correct the problem. So how did Chinese people live preventatively? Well, for the sake of explanation I love to use the analogy from the wonderful book Between Heaven and Earth – that the body is like a garden. You must tend your garden for it to flourish and grow. You must go out into your garden every day, pull weeds, water and inspect your plants to see what the garden needs. Small changes every day are much easier than large changes every few years, often when it is too late. This, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of Chinese medicine and part of what makes it so effective. That said, because of the ways that Chinese medicine describe the body, the organs, qi and their relationships, it is also excellent for correcting diseases when they do arise, and this is why it is so effective, even after 5000 years, at treating modern diseases in the Western world.

Waiting Until It’s Too Late

In the West, we tend to wait until something is quite wrong before we seek medical attention. We wait until something hurts, there is a pain we can no longer ignore, a lump or some other symptom before we go to the doctor to get it checked out. We are not taught the value of living in a healthy, balanced way and instead, we rely on doctors, surgeons, and pharmaceuticals to cure our ills when they come up. It is a different approach, and we are not entirely to blame because it is the way we were taught by our parents before us and that thinking is galvanized by advertising as well as the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. This reliance on medications and complex surgeries seems to have increased also in the past fifty years (and is increasing all the time) as we become more and more disconnected from nature, each other and ourselves. In a country like the United States where people spend more than any other country on health care, they are some of the sickest people on the planet. Do you see something wrong there? In a PBS newshour report published in July of 2016, the United States saw a rise in healthcare spending that reached a mind boggling $3.35 trillion dollars which works out to $10,345 for every man woman and child. The report also stated that US healthcare spending is wildly unbalanced reporting that about 5% of the population, which encompasses the most frail and ill, accounts for nearly half of all healthcare spending in any given year.

this amazing illustration from

A Healthy Way of Life

To give a brief overview of the “way of life” that the Taoists were talking about and Chinese peoples subscribe to, as I said above, Chinese medicine is a medicine of prevention. This means that there is a constant awareness of what is happening in (and out of) the body and that you learn to really LISTEN to what your body is trying to tell you. Does this sound strange? It may, but your body talks to you all the time. Consider your last headache after a long stressful day, pains in your stomach when you knew you had a presentation at work, the hair that stood up on the back of your neck when that person got on the bus behind you, the sense you got that maybe you shouldn’t eat that piece of sushi… there are all ways that your body speaks to you. And it is speaking to you all the time. Are you listening?

Living in Harmony with Nature

Because the Chinese were living in a way that was much more in tune with their natural environment, the way they lived changed in subtle ways according to the seasons. The foods they ate, their daily activities including how much and when they slept and how much physical activity was appropriate were ways in which they were able to stay healthy. Foods were eaten that were available at that particular time of year and grown locally, as these were the healthiest according to Mother Nature and her wisdom, and the people recognized this. The amount of sleep a person would strive for depended on how much energy would be exerted during the day. If a persons energy was to be conserved (as in winter) or expressed freely (as in summer). Internal practices were also important as things like Qi Gong and Tai Chi were a way to keep the body and mind supple and agile well into old age. 5000 years ago there was no retirement, a person had to work until they were no longer able, so keeping your body and mind in the best shape possible was the main motivation.

The Importance of Emotions

Another thing and this is unique to Chinese medicine and very different from how we view health in the West, was and is the importance of the emotions. A healthy emotional life was just as important as a strong, flexible body. The emotional life of a human being is complex, just as complex, it seems, as the workings of the human body. And being emotionally healthy has a great deal to do with a person’s overall health. The fascinating part is that in Chinese medicine each emotion is associated with a specific organ so that an imbalance in that emotion can point to a problem in its respective organ and vice versa, an imbalance in an organ can point to problems with a particular emotion. It is all interrelated. So, being able to understand, and freely express emotions was and are an important part of overall health.

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Chinese Medicine and the Organs

Without getting too deep (because we could get so SO deep into this), let me explain a little bit about how the organs work in Chinese medicine and how important they are in the process of diagnosis. One thing that is important to note, is that the organs in Chinese medicine have very little similarity with the organs and their functions in Western medicine. This causes a lot of confusion when explaining things to patients so it is good to clear that up right away. There are certainly some similarities, but there are far more things that are completely different and unique to the organs in Chinese medicine. The organs in Chinese medicine each have a list of responsibilities. Processes in the body that they are responsible for. The organs are also, all connected. So, if there is a problem with one, then you must look at them all to discover where the root of the problem lies. This is another unique feature of Chinese medicine, is that everything is connected and nothing, be it physical, emotional or spiritual, exists in isolation. This is why as a practitioner, you have to have a very solid understanding of, well everything before you can begin to understand anything that might be happening to your patient. Our intake procedure and questioning are thorough and complex, and this is why.

How Symptoms Point to Specific Organs

Knowing each organ, its associated emotion and its list of responsibilities help one to understand what might be going wrong when problems arise. If someone is struggling with the loss of a spouse and having lung symptoms, in Chinese medicine, this would make perfect sense, as grief is the emotion of the lung. If a particularly angry person comes in with symptoms of red eyes, headache and bitter taste in their mouth, this would point to excess heat in the liver as anger is this organs corresponding emotion. Understanding the connection that the organs have to each other is also important as an excess or deficiency in one can spill over to the next in the cycle, affecting it adversely. Time also is very relevant, as the longer an imbalance has been active, the worse the imbalance will become, creating more severe symptoms and being more difficult to correct.

Location is Important

In a disease like cancer, we are always looking at where the cancer has been found which can tell us a lot about why it has come about in the first place. It is because of the way Chinese medicine sees the organs, their responsibilities, and their interrelationships that the location is so important. In treating my own patients with cancer, it became obvious after the initial consultations why the cancer had presented itself. Often, in listening to a patient’s history it is clear that there have been particularly severe stresses on either the body, the psyche or both that have pushed the body to its breaking point, and cancer is the result. There is also often a long history of signs and symptoms that the patient has had but has either not been aware of or unable (or unwilling) to deal with for various reasons.

Having an understanding of the philosophy of Chinese medicine and the organs and their functions can do a lot to help you to stay healthy, and be able to recognize warning signs; ways that your body is telling you that something is not right. Cancer in many cases is the result of many years of imbalance that started small, building into something larger and more complex and thus, is more difficult to treat.


WHO report – increase in cancer rates:

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