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Do Yew Know Where Your Taxol Comes From?

July 14th, 2017 |

by BarbTerao | Survivor: Breast Cancer    Connect

I've written about my favorite birches, oaks, and redwoods, and even a post titled, "Have You Thanked a Tree Today?" Today, I have another tree to thank. My gratitude reaches a new level, coming from the very marrow of my bones, even as that marrow struggles to make white blood cells, for Taxus Baccata. Also known as the European yew, the leaves of this tree are the basis of a drug called Taxotere (generic name: docetaxel). This drug is helping save my life.

My Welsh ancestors may well have had such yew trees growing nearby, as they were favored in church yards. The toxic leaves repelled the cows, thus protecting the cemeteries from trampling. However, nothing could protect the trees from monarchs' demands for springy yew wood to make longbows. This resulted in yew forest depletion for 300 years until guns became the weapon of choice in the 1700s. Only a few ancient yews, some more than a thousand years old, can still be found in the old churchyards.

Now the trees contribute to my longevity as I take my chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Of the four drugs injected into my system every 21 days, Taxotere from European yews (or Taxol from Pacific yews) is most common. It is apparently a reliable and accurate assassin of cancer cells and has helped shrink my tumor to a fraction of its former size. Due to its effectiveness in treating various cancers, there is a rise in demand from pharmaceutical companies that could again threaten yew populations. After all, cancer drugs are lucrative business. In 2016, Sanofi, the pharmaceutical company that owns Taxotere, made $204 million in Taxotere sales alone.

I wish nothing but the best for the trees and all those receiving their medicine. They inhibit all the cells in my body -- even the good guys, like white blood cells -- from dividing. They make me nauseous and almost bald. I may be sick as a cow in a graveyard, but I plan to get rid of disease, recover from the side effects and surgeries, and live cancer-free.

As I said to my nurse during chemotherapy, "You're giving me poison in order to save my life." She said "That's right."

So thank you, yews. May we continue to turn your cytotoxic poison into medicine so we can stand strong and live. And may you do the same.

Do you know the origins of your cancer treatment? If so, share your fun fact in the comments below!

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BarbTerao's picture
Barbara Terao is a tree-hugger and people-hugger living on an island in Puget Sound near one of her lovely daughters. Barbara's writing about nature, psychology, and life appears in magazines, journals, and on her blog, Of the Earth. She is in treatment for HER2 and hormone-positive breast cancer as of February 2017.