Despite the association of mistletoe with Christmas, Christmas is not the ‘C’ word which I have in mind at this moment.
When I was still a child … a long time ago … I occasionally overheard adults talking in hushed tones about this mysterious ‘C’ word, a word which was not spoken in front of the children, rather as the words ‘biscuit’ or ‘sweetie’ were not spoken when the dog might hear them. I was well into adulthood before it became acceptable to say ‘cancer’ rather than the ‘C’ word, albeit one lowered one’s voice when the dread word was spoken. Nowadays, of course, we speak openly of cancer, although almost invariably in solemn tones, for despite great advances in the treatment of cancer, it is no laughing matter.
And whence comes the association between cancer and mistletoe? Well, the Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher, naval and army commander Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first Christian century, recorded the use of mistletoe in Druidic Britain in religious rites and as a medicine, although Pliny does not disclose what maladies mistletoe was used to treat. And during the past two thousand years innumerable treatises on the benefits of herbal medicines have described mistletoe as a medicinal herb which is useful in treating a wide range of illnesses, most commonly to treat epilepsy. Three hundred years ago, the English apothecary Sir John Colbatch … who was knighted for his services to medicine … wrote of mistletoe: “There must be something extraordinary about that uncommon beautiful plant, that the Almighty had designed it for further and more noble uses than barely to feed thrushes or to be hung up superstitiously.” But even he did not describe those uses.
If we come right up to date, in December 2018 NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde described mistletoe therapy in these words: “Mistletoe therapy is an anthroposophical medicine and can be integrated with conventional cancer treatment. It involves the prescribed use of mistletoe by qualified doctors and nurses. The mistletoe is obtained from the European mistletoe plant (Viscum album L.) and is pharmaceutically prepared. Mistletoe is available as ampoules for injection or drops to be taken by mouth. Mistletoe therapy does not replace recommended cancer treatment. … Patient referrals for mistletoe are from registered health professionals involved in the care of patients with cancer.” And Wikipedia describes anthroposophical medicine as, “a form of alternative medicine devised in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner in conjunction with Ita Wegman. Anthroposophical medicine is based on occult notions and draws on Steiner’s spiritual philosophy, which he called anthroposophy.”
Let’s cross the North Atlantic, where we learn …from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health … that, “Mistletoe has been used for centuries in traditional medicine for a variety of conditions including seizures, headaches, and arthritis. Today, mistletoe is used in Europe as a treatment for cancer.” We are also advised that the European mistletoe which is used in alternative medicine is different from the American mistletoe which is used as a holiday decoration.
European mistletoe is very common in south-west England, but rarely found in Scotland. There certainly isn’t any in gardens or woods near my home. And mistletoe has not been hailed as a cure for cancer. “Mistletoe therapy does not replace recommended cancer treatment,” as NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde says. So, gentle readers, do not be tempted to try to help a friend with any form of cancer by experimenting with the past-its-best Christmas mistletoe or by suggesting that they might try some form of mistletoe therapy on their own.