My Neighbor The Yew


I have many neighbors I care for but one neighbor here in the broader Pacific Northwest stands alone as a life saving cancer-fighting pal – the yew. I am growing my own yew now which towers at one modest foot. I grow it as a friend, not a medical agent to use, as the yew goes through many steps (some controversial) before it gets poured into your body as Taxol.

The Yew is in front - modest in size

The Yew is in front – modest in size

I have failed many chemos by now (gemzar, doxil, carbo) and am officially dubbed – quite rudely – a ‘chemo failure’. But I continue to respond to taxol, even though that may change with evolving mutations in my cancer. Taxol saved me at frontline treatment and it saved me this past year when I transitioned to low doses weekly. It brought me to the Philly trial with a stable ca 125 of 7. A ca 125 I have maintained now for seven months. Such stability is deeply valued by me!

This is a weekend to honor workers. I honor the international community of everyday workers that keep holding the line for a productive society with worker’s rights. And I’ll throw in this working drug derived from this attractive plant who lives alongside me in the wet side of Oregon, as well as my little pal in the backyard.800px-PacificYew_8538

Here is a great article to share more about this wonder plant who has changed the course of cancer care for many, many people. Nature rocks!

Pacific yew: A potent cancer-fighting agent  

When USDA botanist Arthur Barclay collected a sample of bark from the Pacific yew tree in Washington State in 1962, he had no way of knowing that the sample would yield one of the most important cancer-fighting drugs ever developed. One of many botanists commissioned by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect parts of plants for testing as possible anti-cancer agents, Barclay personally collected more than 200 species for analysis. Among those samples, only the Pacific yew Taxus berevifolia, would contain a blockbuster pharmaceutical hit.

In May of 1964, scientists tested the various samples collected by USDA botanists and discovered a cytotoxic compound in the Pacific yew sample collected by Barclay. Subsequent to that discovery, researchers Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani, both working in a NCI drug discovery program in North Carolina, screened fresh Pacific yew samples and isolated a previously unknown, highly active cancer-fighting compound. In 1967, that compound was named Taxol.

The road from the initial discovery of Taxol and its launch for the treatment of various cancers was a long one. After the first isolation of Taxol from the bark of the yew, researchers began to collect much more materila. Amounts of Taxol found in the bark are so tiny that it took over two tons of bark to yield just 10 grams of pure material.

By collecting large amounts of bark from the trees, the trees died. Researchers determined early that collecting enough Taxol from the bark of the Pacific yew to yield a viable drug would quickly wipe out the species, putting an end to the whole development process. A calculation by NCI’s Gordon Crag determined that 360,000 mature yew trees per year would be required for production. This was completely out of the question.

To get around the problem of a non-sustainable supply, various teams of researchers in France, Florida and New York threw themselves at synthesizing Taxol. Eventually the company Phyton Biotech based out of Ithaca, New York solved the problem by developing a method that produces Taxol through a technique involving cell fermentation. Today, all commercial Taxol is made by this method, and none is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew.

In 1984, NCI began clinical trials on Taxol. Their studies showed significant improvement in cases of melanoma and ovarian cancer. Eventually NCI needed a commercial partner to bring Taxol to market. Among four companies that expressed interest, Bristol-Myers Squibb was selected to commercialize the drug. In 1992, the company received approval to market Taxol as a chemotherapy drug.

Today Taxol, also known as Paclitaxel, is marketed under the brand names Abraxane and Onxol. It is used to treat ovarian and breast tumors, lung cancer, and Kaposi’s sarcoma. The drug is harsh, causing negative effects that include nausea, vomiting, pain in the joints, loss of hair, abnormal bowel function, dizziness, exhaustion, skin rash, chest pain, female infertility, fever and chills. Despite the almost guaranteed pain and discomfort, Taxol is the bestselling anti-cancer drug in all of history, with annual sales topping $1.6 billion, according to NCI.

Botanists often start the chain of drug discovery, coming upon plants and parts of plants that yield compounds, which ultimately turn into life-saving drugs. And while the production of Taxol, the gigantic pharmaceutical success story, is now accomplished by sophisticated manufacturing methods in sterile conditions, it all started with one man prying bark off of a tree in the woods.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at -agent/240px-Taxus_brevifolia_Blue_Mts_WA


About marcy westerling

I am a long time community organizer with a passion for justice and founded the Rural Organizing Project in 1992. Derailed by a Stage IV Ovarian Cancer diagnosis in spring 2010, I have stayed in treatment since then. I am learning how to embrace livingly dying and hope that by starting a Phase One immunology clinical trial at UPenn in spring of 2013 I will have more time to find the sweet spots of thriving while terminally ill.

7 responses »

  1. My sister left this world in 1991 – a year too late for the Taxol trials…..I have always lamented that I wished her breast cancer could have had a dose of Taxol…… I get to cheer you on as you get the benefit of so many years of fantastic research………You Go Girl!!!! love to you.

  2. I too love the Yew. As a native Oregonian and tree-hugger I knew the Yew well from hiking in the damp central and southern coast forests. But, I didn’t know what it really meant to me until my chemo treatments included Paclitaxel. Following treatment and on my first return trip to Oregon I searched out the Yew to give it an extra big hug and thank it for its blessings. A belated “Thank You” to Arthur Barclay. Continued success to you, Marcy, with your clinical trial. Be well.

  3. thanks for the education Marcy and for your spirit which triumphs and teaches.
    much love to you and brava to the little yew tree. I’m off to Ireland soon with labor activist Anne Feeney leading the way. I’ll send you a song…

  4. Since you posted this on my birthday, and I missed it, I want to leave a word about the Pacific yew. Back in about 1993, I wrote an article on the pacific yew and how it was located through satellite imagery. At the time, I worked for the company that operated the Landsat satellite, which collects this environmental data. Little did I know that, 8 years later, Taxol would save my life. Sad that it takes so long to go from “bench to bedside.”

    And, P.S. YOU did not fail chemo. THE CHEMOS FAILED YOU.

  5. Tree bark, who would have thought. Thanks for the insight:) Have you looked into the healing properties of B17? The active ingredient is from apricot seeds. Please look up Sandi B17 from Youtube, she and others have cured themselves with incurable cancer.

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