Why you should care
Because who wouldn’t want a cure for cancer?
On International Nurses Day, we take a look back at one of history’s most intrepid nurses. This story was originally published on Feb. 27, 2017.
The Canadian nurse was about to discover a secret that would change her life, and the lives of her patients, forever. In 1922, while tending to an 80-year-old woman, Rene Caisse noticed scarring on one of the woman’s breasts. When asked about it, Caisse’s patient explained that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer some 30 years before.
The woman had emigrated from England and found herself in a mining camp in northern Ontario, says Debbie Jakovac, owner of Blue Moon Herbs. When a visit to a Toronto doctor revealed the cancer diagnosis, it was recommended that the woman have a mastectomy. Mastectomies in the late 1800s were often grisly, and the woman had lost a friend to one such surgery. So when a medicine man at the mining camp said he could help her with an herbal tea, “she drank the herbal mixture daily, and within time the breast tumors gradually diminished,” writes Cynthia Olsen in Essiac: A Native Herbal Cancer Remedy.
Having been given just months to live, Caisse’s aunt lived another 21 years with no recurrence of cancer.
Caisse got the recipe from her patient and “filed it away,” says Jakovac. A short while later, while Caisse was visiting a doctor friend, he pointed to a weed in his yard and said it could help rid the world of cancer if more people used it. Caisse recognized the “weed” as one of the ingredients in the herbal tea. So when her aunt was diagnosed with stomach and liver cancer two years later, she got permission from her aunt’s doctor to use the herbal formula to treat the disease. Having been given just months to live, Caisse’s aunt lived another 21 years with no recurrence of cancer.
Caisse began experimenting with the herbs, and by 1926, a group of doctors was sufficiently impressed by the results to petition the Canadian government to give Caisse treatment facilities. The petition was denied, and Caisse was threatened with arrest — something she managed to avoid by not charging for her services and teaming up with patients’ doctors. She also ran tests on mice, injecting them with Rous sarcoma and then treating them with the herbal tea, dubbed Essiac (Caisse’s name spelled backward). The rodents lived for 52 days, “longer than with any other treatment,” writes Olsen.
Caisse soon gave up nursing so she could focus on seeing cancer patients in her apartment in Bracebridge, Ontario. She collaborated with Frederick Banting (of insulin fame) to treat a patient of his suffering from diabetes and colon cancer. The patient was given Essiac, and both the diabetes and cancer disappeared.
Eventually the Bracebridge Town Council gave Caisse space for five treatment rooms, where she helped thousands of cancer patients. Her mother, diagnosed in 1935 and given just days to live, was treated with Essiac and lived another 18 years. In 1938, a petition circulated that would allow Caisse to treat patients without their doctors’ permission or the threat of arrest, but it fell three votes short of passing. “She wanted them to acknowledge that it appeared to be working before she’d give up the formula, and they wanted her to give up the formula first,” says Jakovac.
Hounded relentlessly, Caisse suffered a nervous collapse and ended up closing her clinic. Given a choice between handing over the formula or going to jail, Caisse “went underground, but kept quietly treating people,” Jakovac says. She also worked with Charles Brusch, John F. Kennedy’s doctor, who persuaded Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to conduct tests on the herbs, Olsen writes. In archived correspondence between Caisse and Sloan Kettering, says Jakovac, the former nurse is clearly irritated with the researchers for failing to include one of the herb’s roots and for freezing the concoction, which, she explained, was detrimental. “Early results were really promising,” says Jakovac, but the researchers “weren’t doing it right, and the results weren’t promising after that.” Caisse tried to interest pharmaceutical companies in the formula and finally sold it to Resperin in 1977, shortly before her death. She also shared the formula with a few friends, including Brusch.
The formula includes burdock root, sheep sorrel, slippery elm bark and turkey rhubarb root, according to Olsen. With many small firms marketing Essiac-related remedies, from tinctures and powders to tea and capsules, there’s plenty of debate as to which products contain the right amounts of the various ingredients. Still, thousands subscribe to an Essiac fan page on Facebook, posting testimonials about its healing power. Gary Wandling, 77, swears by it. Diagnosed with prostate cancer that had progressed to his bones, and given months to live, Wandling started drinking the tea daily … 11 years ago.
Jakovac started drinking Essiac tea, and selling it, after gallbladder surgery left her with digestive problems that were relieved by the tea. She doesn’t call Essiac a cancer cure, but rather a healthy remedy that offers hope and healing while promising to do no harm. Brusch wrote in 1980 that he endorsed the Essiac therapy, “for I have in fact cured my own cancer, the original site of which was the lower bowel, through Essiac alone.”
Whether folks choose to believe in the power of the tea, the range of Essiac products being marketed today are a powerful testament to one woman, Rene Caisse, a nurse with a single-minded commitment to saving thousands of lives.