I was saddened to read the story of Brittany Maynard
, a lovely young woman who decided to end her life rather than face the end stages of malignant brain cancer.
"My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that's out of my control," she told PEOPLE last month. "I've discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it's a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying."
"Really, from the beginning, all the doctors said when you have a glioma you're going to die," she told PEOPLE. "You can just Google it. People don't survive this disease. Not yet."
We have no right to gainsay her decision. However, there is an unusual but promising treatment option which I would have considered, were I in her position.
For some time now, I've researched Frankincense, best-known as one of the gifts of the Magi. At first, I was interested in the use of Frankincense in oil painting mediums, as detailed in some early 19th century books that have come to my attention. (Longtime readers know of my fascination with the history of art materials.) Top museum conservators have told me that painters did indeed use frankincense before the 18th century. They don't know why the ingredient was dropped, and no-one knows if this resin had a deleterious effect on any specific painting.
While researching the use of frankincense in oil painting, I encountered many references to the medical benefits of this gum resin. To be blunt: There are people who say that frankincense can cure cancer, or at least make tumors shrink.
Normally, I am very
skeptical of the claims made by the advocates of non-traditional therapies. But, as we shall see, frankincense is different.
Frankincense is a resin produced by several trees of the Boswellia family. A frankincense "farmer" cuts into the bark of the tree and waits for white "tears" to form a kind of scab over the wound. The frankincense considered best is Boswellia sacra, produced only in the country of Oman, of which the very best variety -- Royal Hojari -- is a transparent white with a subtle green tint. Bosellia carteri and Boswellia frereana come from Africa, while Boswellia serrata is produced in India.
Some studies -- not enough, I confess -- have shown that B. carteri, serrata and sacra have demonstrated remarkable medical benefits. Boswellia has been used to treat a number of illnesses, including arthritis and cancer.
I'm not talking about pseudo-studies conducted by shamanistic hucksters running encounter sessions in Sedona, Arizona. I'm talking about real
available on the National Institute of Health website.
One of the leading researchers is an Iraqi doctor named Suhail, featured in the BBC news segment embedded above. (You can also see him in other YouTube videos on Frankincense -- this one
, for example.)
So let's take up Ms. Maynard's challenge. Let's google "glioblastoma" -- but let's also pair it with the search term "Boswellia."
The National Institute of Health website gives us this result: "Boswellic acids inhibit glioma growth: a new treatment option?"
According to the abstract, rat studies have shown enormous promise -- animals receiving Boswellia lived twice as long as those in the control group, and their tumors decreased significantly.
These data demonstrate an influence of EGR in rat glioma growth and might represent a new therapeutic option on glioma treatment in man in future. Further experimental work on human gliomas is needed to definitively answer this question.
"EGR" refers to extract from gum resin
. You may also want to look at this page
on the Sloan-Kettering website.
Also see here
Boswellia may be doubly useful for primary brain tumors. Studies published in 2000 (Winking M et al 2000) and 2002 (Park YS et al 2002) tell us that in addition to helping reduce cerebral swelling around the tumor, boswellia also kills glioblastoma cells in a dose-dependent manner.
Boswellia is also useful for treating secondary brain tumors. In 2007 researchers reported using boswellia to treat a patient with breast cancer metastasis to the brain. Familiar with the German research on using boswellia in the treatment of primary brain tumors, the team tried it with these secondary brain tumors and reported benefit. After ten weeks of boswellia treatment in combination with radiation treatment, all signs of brain metastases on the patient’s CT scans had disappeared (Flavin DF 2007).
Maynard refused to undergo chemotherapy and radiation, a decision I find quite understandable. My mother developed lung cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiation. Those months were an extremely difficult time, for her and for her entire family, and I will always remember the dignity and courage she showed under the most trying of circumstances.
If and when I face a similar battle, I intend to try frankincense in large doses. It can be used as an essential oil, in pill form, and as an edible oil made from raw gum resin -- perhaps carried by flax seed oil, the oil traditionally favored by painters, who call it linseed oil. (You can eat it or paint with it, as long as you don't let it go rancid. The same can be said for walnut oil, the medium favored by Leonardo.)
Someone fighting cancer may even want to chew Boswellia sacra as a gum, just as the Omanis do. Frankincense is everywhere
in Oman, and according to the National Institute of Health website: "Incidence of cancer in Oman is lower than in some Gulf countries and many developed countries."
(Obviously, I can't prove that frankincense use has resulted in fewer cancers in Oman -- correlation is not causation, and all that -- but the correlation is still suggestive and encouraging.)
In a very broad sense, I'm already conducting studies.
Readers know about my beloved dog Bella. She is nearly 15, and has had serious health issues. There have been a few times when we felt we might lose her. Last year, generous donations from my readers paid for an operation to remove two growths from her stomach, one of which had a carcinoma.
Not long ago, we discovered another small growth in her stomach, just beneath the skin. (This is not uncommon with dogs.) Although the growth isn't painful to the touch, I presume that it will grow as the others did -- if it remains untreated.
Frankly, even if money were not an issue, I would be loathe to make Bella undergo another operation. Recovery from the previous surgery was not easy. (That said, I must admit that the scars have healed nicely.)
Right now, Bella's quality of life is still good. She eats excellent food, she receives the pampering she considers her due, and she loves to bark furiously at cats and visitors. On most days, she can complete her usual walk to the park. Yet stairs have become difficult for her, and sometimes she turns back toward home before she has completed her usual route. One should expect an older dog to develop joint pains.
I am attempting frankincense therapy. You might say that my dog has become a guinea pig.
Research indicates that Boswellia does dogs no harm and may have extremely beneficial effects. Veterinarians have started to recommend its use
Clinical studies have also shown boswellia to benefit patients with arthritis. An uncontrolled study on dogs with arthritis showed a significant reduction in the severity of clinical signs.
sells Boswellia serrata in capsule form for an extremely reasonable price. Bella receives 200 mg of Boswellia (half a capsule) each day, mixed with a tablespoon or two of tuna in oil. This dosage should be safe for most dogs.
As an experiment, I'm also applying frankincense to her belly topically, using Boswellia carteri essential oil mixed with Buckthorn seed oil. (Why that
oil? Because I just happened to have some. It's pretty good for rosacea.)
Ever since I put Bella on Boswellia, going downstairs has been easier for her -- and I'm not imagining the improvement. A couple of weeks ago, she was in the habit of silently "asking" me to carry her down the more difficult part of the stairway. Now she usually bounds down the way she used to.
I'll let you know how the experiment goes.
Let me stress again: Nothing written here should be construed as a criticism of Ms. Maynard. She made the decision that she made, and we should not question her. My purpose in writing this piece is simply to argue that another option does exist -- an option still unfamiliar to many, but very deserving of future study.
Gold may have been the least
important of the gifts of the Magi.