TCVM: An integrative approach to treating cancer

TCVM may be a stand-alone or adjunctive treatment for animal cancer patients. It not only treats cancer, but can potentially prevent recurrence and metastasis. 

Cancer is one of the most despised and feared words in the medical vocabulary. It’s also one of the biggest health concerns facing not only humans, but also our canine and feline patients. Cancer afflicts one in every three1 to one in every four dogs2, with incidence increasing to almost 50% in dogs over the age of ten years2. In fact, it is the leading cause of death in dogs and cats in the United States; as many as 50% of our companion canines and felines die from cancer.

Conventional medicine seeks to kill cancer cells by utilizing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. Treatment is based on the particular type of cancer a patient has, and focuses more on the disease itself than on the overall health of the individual patient. Conventional treatments often cause collateral damage to the body, with impacts ranging from mild to severe.

In contrast, Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) treats the disease pattern identified in an individual patient (irrespective of the conventional biomedical diagnosis), taking into consideration the overall condition of the patient at that time. TCVM treatments work with the body rather than against it, and the side effects, if any, are typically mild. TCVM may be used as a stand-alone treatment or an adjunctive treatment for cancer patients. It provides the veterinary practitioner the ability to not only treat active cancer, but to potentially prevent recurrence and metastasis.

Traditional Chinese Medicine etiology of cancer

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cancer develops from three primary sources: exogenous factors, endogenous factors, and emotional factors. If Zheng Qi (Upright Qi, Antipathogenic Qi) is strong, these pathogenic factors will be defeated and the body remains unharmed. However, if Zheng Qi is weak, the pathogenic factors invade the body, creating a disharmony that develops into cancer. Cancer is therefore a pattern of both excess and deficiency with an underlying Zheng Qi deficiency.

1. Exogenous or external factors include toxins such as heat toxin, food toxin, radiation, chemicals, heavy metals, and the six pathogenic factors (Wind, Heat, Summer Heat, Cold, Dryness, Dampness).

2. Endogenous factors include internal organ (Zang-fu) disharmony(ies), an imbalance of Yin/Yang and Qi, and Blood deficiency (weak constitution).

3. Emotional factors result in emotional stress or heightened emotions (e.g. lack of exercise or social interaction, changes in household schedule or members, etc.). Any of these factors, singly or in combination, may cause stagnation of Qi/Blood, Phlegm, Dampness or Toxicity, which may then develop into cancer. Often, a root deficiency of Qi, Qi/Yang, Blood or Yin have enabled the external factors to have a strong impact, or are the actual cause of Zang-fu

In veterinary medicine, some of the most common TCM etiologies of neoplasia include:

  • Trauma and/or Cold-Damp, leading to Blood Stasis
  • Inappropriate diet, which may result in Food Stagnation, leading to Accumulation of Phlegm and/or Heat Toxin
  • Environmental changes (household changes, boarding, travel, etc.), leading to Qi Stagnation
  • Invasion of the six Pathogenic Factors, leading to Stagnation of Blood/Qi, accumulation of Phlegm, Heat, Heat Toxin, and/or Damp
  • Disharmony of Zang-fu (internal) organs, leading to Zheng Qi deficiency, which then leads to Stagnation of Blood/Qi, accumulation of Phlegm, Heat, Heat Toxin, and/or Damp
  • Note: Vaccines and chemicals are Toxins/Heat Toxins. Their administration may bypass the normal route of TCM pathogenic invasion; thus, the body is unable to “fight” these pathogens, and they can have a strong negative impact on the body . Additionally, as these exogenous toxins may be introduced to the body at the deepest (Xue) level, they may remain latent as a pathogenic factor, only to emerge in the future when the body’s Zheng Qi is weakened.

Strategies for treating cancer with TCM

1. Tonify Zheng Qi

If Zheng Qi is deficient, the body’s resistance to pathogenic factors is weak. Zheng Qi deficiency is ultimately the root cause of cancer.

  • Tonify Qi
  • Tonify Spleen
  • Nourish Blood
  • Nourish Yin

 2. Move Qi and Blood

Stagnation of Qi and Blood is the basic pathologic change seen in the development of cancer.

3. Clear internal Heat and toxins

Infection and chronic inflammation are predisposing factors in the development of cancer.  In TCM, Heat-toxin is a major cause of cancer.

4. Dispel Phlegm and Dampness

Damp obstructs the smooth flow of Spleen Qi. This means the Spleen’s ability to transform food into Food Qi (Gu Qi) and transport Gu Qi to the Upper jiao (Lungs for distribution to the rest of the body, and Heart where the transformation into Blood occurs) is impaired.  The Spleen hates Damp; when there is Damp, the Spleen must work extra hard to eliminate the pathogen. Damp is the origin of Phlegm, and when Phlegm accumulates, masses develop.

  • Support Spleen to drain Damp
  • Drain Damp
  • Transform Phlegm

5. Bring the body back to balance

The fundamental basis of TCM is balance and harmony.  When the body is out of balance, disharmony occurs and disease is manifested. Treatment therefore seeks to help the body come back into balance, eliminating excesses and supplementing deficiencies.

 The five main branches of TCM

The strategies discussed above are accomplished through the five main branches of TCM: acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary or food therapy, Tui-na, and Tai-chi/Qi-gong.In this author’s opinion, the best results are achieved when at least two branches are utilized concurrently, and a kibble diet is eliminated.

1. Acupuncture

To date, the full effects of acupuncture are not completely understood. Its physiological effects cannot be explained by a single mechanism; however, there is evidence that acupuncture stimulates a series of interactions among the nervous system, endocrine system and immune system, resulting in somato-somatic, somato-visceral and somato-autonomic reflexes. Acupoints and needling technique should address the TCM pattern of disharmony as well as the side effects from current treatment protocols, such as chemotherapy-associated nausea and diarrhea, or pain secondary to the cancer or subsequent to the treatment modality. Insertion of a needle at or very close to a known malignant mass is contraindicated, as is electro-acupuncture across a neoplastic mass.

 2. Chinese herbal medicine

Herbal formulas may be used separately or in tandem with conventional therapies. Strategies to employ prior to and after conventional therapies should focus on supplementing Qi, nourishing Blood, and tonifying the Spleen, Liver and Kidneys. During conventional therapies, herbal formulas may be utilized to mitigate negative side effects. When used as the primary therapy, formulas to dispel pathogenic factors to directly address the tumor should be used in tandem with formulas that supplement Qi, nourish Blood and tonify Spleen, Liver, Kidneys and other affected Zang-fu. In this author’s experience, as the TCM patterns change with the disease state, formulas are typically modified or changed altogether.

3. Dietary or food therapy

From a TCM perspective, the poor ingredient quality and processing of commercially-prepared dry and canned pet foods are at the root cause of many cancers. Kibble has an astringent effect on the Stomach and engenders Food Stagnation and Damp Heat in the body. Damp Heat congeals with time and forms Phlegm. Additionally, the Spleen gets overtaxed dealing with the extra Dampness and becomes weakened. The high pressure and temperature used in processing canned foods releases more heat energy and alters Qi, creating a food that is warmer than its original contents and damages/decreases Qi and Blood. There are also concerns that bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol F (BPF), contained in the lining of most canned foods, may be carcinogenic. Freeze-dried foods tend to be Qi deficient and drying, leading to Blood deficiency and Body Fluid deficiency when used long-term. Considering that the patient with cancer is already in a state of deficiency with excess, the optimum diet is one that will help tonify the Spleen/Stomach to create good Qi and Blood, as well as address the other disharmonies specific to the patient.

In this author’s opinion, fresh foods, either home-cooked or from a gently-cooked, commercially-prepared, frozen raw diet, are critical to the treatment of cancer in our companion animals. Historically, we have designed TCM diets utilizing 60% to 70% high quality protein, 10% to 20% primarily low-glycemic index carbohydrates, and 20% to 30% lightly-cooked vegetables in tandem with nutraceuticals such as digestive enzymes, pre- and probiotics, fish oil or algae-based EPA/DHA, microalgae, medicinal mushrooms, and whole food vitamin-mineral supplements. Current research utilizing a ketogenic diet is promising, and when combined with the tenets of TCM may yield the best results yet.3

4. Tui-na

Other veterinary substitutions for Tui-na include body work such as massage, chiropractic, and craniosacral therapy.

5. Tai-chi/Qi-gong

Daily exercise, ideally in environments with minimal chemicals and electromagnetic fields, is recommended as a “substitute” for Tai-chi/Qi-gong.

Cancer case studies illustrating the principles of TCVM


Amynta, a 4½-year-old spayed female Rhodesian ridgeback, was presented for TCM treatment following exploratory surgery with resection and anastomosis for an ileal intussusception. Histopathology of the resected small intestine and cytology of an abdominal lymph node were consistent with high grade lymphoma.

One month post-surgery, the patient was started on CHOP-based chemotherapy with a board-certified oncologist, as well as Chinese herbal medicine, nutraceuticals, and a home-cooked diet for support during chemotherapy. Amynta’s owner also started her on alkalinized water. The patient received dry needle and aqua-acupuncture with vitamin B12 and lyophilized thymus extract on a regular basis, but after four months, her owner discontinued chemotherapy due to the negative side effects.

Since then, Amynta has been maintained on regular dry needle and aqua-acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicines, nutraceuticals, daily oral thymus extract with colostrum, DLLV (lily extract), and a primarily home-cooked diet to address her TCM patterns of disharmony. After the owner moved out of town, she and her local veterinarian added rectal ozone therapy with microbiome restorative therapy to address Amynta’s chronic intermittent diarrhea (often secondary to dietary indiscretion). Chinese herbal medicines and nutraceuticals have been changed over time to address her changing TCM patterns of disharmony.

To date, two years and two months since initial presentation, Amynta is doing extremely well, and is lively and active, with no evidence of recurring disease.

Treatment strategies utilized: Tonify Spleen Qi and drain Damp, nourish Blood and Yin, move Qi and Blood, and support Kidney Jing.


Camille, a ten-year-old spayed female domestic shorthair cat, was presented for TCM treatment following duodenal resection for a mast cell tumor one month prior. She was also in the early stage of chronic renal disease at the time of diagnosis.

Camille has been maintained for four years and four months on prednisolone, Chinese herbal medications, nutraceuticals, a commercially-prepared raw meat diet (slightly and gently cooked) and monthly aqua-acupuncture with vitamin B12, bioregulatory medicine, and lyophilized thymus extract. Her renal values have remained stable, and no signs of MCT recurrence or metastasis have been identified on repeat abdominal ultrasounds. Chinese herbal formulas and nutraceuticals have been changed over the years to address Camille’s changing TCM patterns of disharmony.

Treatment strategies utilized: Tonify Spleen Qi, nourish Blood, move Qi and Blood, tonify Kidney Qi.


Magnus, a 4½-year-old neutered male boxer, was presented to the emergency service for hemoabdomen. The day before, an approximately 8cm complex mass was seen on abdominal ultrasound. No metastasis was appreciated on thoracic radiographs, and biopsy of the spleen and liver revealed splenic hemangiosarcoma but no apparent hepatic involvement.

The owner opted for follow-up TCM treatment only and presented with Magnus one month after surgery.  The patient was prescribed two Chinese herbal medications, coriolus mushroom extract, and a home-cooked diet to address his TCM diagnosis. He was also treated twice with aqua-acupuncture using vitamin B12, bioregulatory medicine, and lyophilized thymus extract.

The patient moved out of state one month after presentation, but was continued on herbal medication for one year.

Three years and five months after initial presentation, the owner informed us that Magnus was still alive and thriving. She ran out of herbs but continued the TCM diet and added colloidal silver and several drops of food grade hydrogen peroxide to his drinking water.

Treatment strategies utilized: Tonify Qi, tonify Spleen, nourish Blood, move Qi and Blood, support Kidney Jing.


The use of TCM, either independently or in an integrative approach with conventional medicine and other holistic modalities, enables the practitioner to address the changing landscape of health and disease our cancer patients exhibit as they progress through treatment. By identifying and addressing disharmonies, the body is provided an enhanced and supported chance of survival.

This article has been peer reviewed.


Dr. Madeline Yamate received her DVM from the University of California, Davis in 2005, and completed a year-long internship in veterinary acupuncture at the University of Florida under Dr. Huisheng Xie. She is certified in veterinary acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, Chinese food therapy and Tui-na by the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, and veterinary spinal manipulative therapy by the Healing Oasis Wellness Center. In 2006, Dr. Yamate joined the faculty of the Chi Institute, and has taught acupuncture, herbology, food therapy and Tui-na in Florida, California and Spain. She has lectured internationally on integrative veterinary medicine and TCVM and is in private practice at the Center for Integrative Animal Medicine in Davis, CA.