What’s your poison?

Yew Tree at Skipton Castle, Yorkshire

Having emerged from chemo fog and side effect hell, I decided to research the drug Docetaxel just for fun. I know right, living on the edge ; p Docetaxel is one of my chemotherapy drugs. When the docs call it a ‘chemo’ drug, it just means that it’s a systemic drug that treats the whole body. Other drugs, like Herceptin are targeted directly at the cancer cells. Chemo is the ‘go nuclear’ option. So first I was googling my other chemo drug, Carboplatin, and I found out that at the centre of its molecular structure lies a platinum atom. This for some reason made me feel special and precious. It spurred me on to keep googling.

Docetaxel is VERY interesting. It’s derived from the needle-like leaves of the European Yew tree. Now, don’t all run out and start chewing on yew tree leaves in the assumption that it’ll pre-zap cancer cells. This tree is a deadly blighter. It will kill you very quickly and efficiently if you eat any part of it aside from the tiny fleshy part of the berries. The seeds inside the flesh of the berry will also kill you so sucking the sweet flesh of this tree should be considered an extreme sport. By some magical process inside mysterious laboratories, genius people in white coats transform this poison into medicine.

The first time the Yew tree was recorded to be used for medicinal purposes in Europe was in 1021 but it wasn’t until 1967 that its cancer fighting properties were scientifically formulated. The Yew has a long and important social history and is posited to be the Germanic pagan holy tree, Yggdrasil. The Christians pinched the sacredness of the tree from the pagans. They knew a good thing when they saw one, those early Christian types. The Yew was then planted in churchyards or churches and monastries built around the trees. Or perhaps they knew that on really hot days, the Yew emits a gas that can induce hallucinations. That’s one way to get the punters in and see God at the same time. Yet possibly the reason we have any left is due to the relative safety of churchyards from developers.

The Yew is a very long-lived green thing. The oldest one in the UK is the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire and could be 3,000 years old! Again that tree got to a ripe old age in a churchyard. The tree does seem to have this duality of life and death surrounding it. Being deathly poisonous to living creatures and mostly located in old creepy cemetaries, but at the same time the source for life-saving medicines. My life-saving medicine. It is a tree I would most definitely wish to hug. Funnily enough I once had someone call me a ‘tree-hugger’ as an insult. I remember not being pissed off because of the insult but that at the time it was voiced, I had actually been ranting on about human rights. A much more appropriate put down would have been ‘do-gooder’. I mean if you’re gonna insult me, at least get it right ; ) But for this tree, insult away. Correctly this time. Yews rock!

17 thoughts on “What’s your poison?

  1. kim

    Wow,nature is amazing!!! And ridiculously scary lol. That’s really interesting about the tree and its amazing medicinal properties. What was it used for it the 11th century then?

    P.s the tree hugger insult was I there then?

  2. Also good for longbows, I hear.
    Something similar to your ‘tree hugger’ incident happened to me once… I was strolling along in Manchester with my friend, both of us women with short hair and me probably wearing a biker jacket, when some yob yelled ‘Lesbians!!’ at us from the other side of the road. I yelled back ‘Homophobe!!’ and we both thought we’d insulted each other.
    (by the way if you check that blog link you’ll find only the selected highlights of my life… there’s no personal thoughts or kitchen-sink situations on there. More like a holiday album online. With a few sardonic writings a few years back.)

  3. Kat

    Ah, lovely post, the way you have storied your chemo drugs.

    It’s probable that some yew trees are so old they predate the churchyards, and because they were sacred places the churches were built next to them.

    1. Heidi

      yes I think that’s definitely true about some of the yew trees being there before the church. especially the ones that predate Jesus!

  4. sokari

    Thanks for this research . Countries in the global south and no doubt as you point out in the west too have for years used herbs roots leaves etc for medicinal purposes. I am sure if we investigate we might have many of these so called indigenous medicines are ingredients or form the base of chemical medicines. Heidi it might be of interest if you can watch it but I have been watching an excellent three part docu on cancer shown on US PBS [I watch online so maybe you can too]. Apparently the first known reference to cancer was in ancient Egypt, well no surprise there I guess. Under treatment it was written NO CURE. The programme then goes through history of treatments. There are some present day interviews and some kiddies which I should warn had me in tears but you can FF these. There is quite a bit of breast cancer and the use of radical mastectomies which are not done anymore and it goes through why they were doing those operations and how one doctor discovering how cancer spread led to the end of radical surgeries. Anyway I found it interesting.

    Glad you are over the worst again and half way there


    1. Heidi

      YES sokari I reckon there’s loads of traditional medicinal uses for the Yew. I came across some uses in the Himalayas but it was the Pacific Yew. There’s SO much more to write about this. Pacific Yew has another different chemo medicine associated with it and there was a massive problem with over harvesting and threatened extinction mostly caused by Big Pharma. I’m pretty interested in researching this more but I didn’t have time for the blog. also a company that collects the clippings for the European yew and sells to pharma needs some closer scrutiny.

      someone else told me about this PBS show. I shall def have a look. yeh I read about the Egyptian mummy with breast cancer. amazing! xxx

  5. Karen

    Wow, that’s interesting – I was imagining some totally synthetic thing it felt difficult to relate to, but the thought of it being from the Yew tree feels really potent in a very earthy way. Here’s a picture of a 1000 year old one at Ormiston. The Centre for Human Ecology used to do their graduation ceremonies under it!

  6. Heidi

    goodness that’s a beautiful tree and I love the idea of modern rituals taking place under it.

    the drug is synthesised but they still use the tree clippings for some reason in the lab. this is something I couldn’t get to grips with in the hour I had to Google ; ) maybe one of the bosomer scientists can answer this. I internet summon Nacho Romero! xx

  7. Linda

    Sokari’s TV show sounds like it could be based on the book ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’ by Siddharta Mukherjee (sp?) – about the history of cancer/attempts to cure it. It’s really interesting, at least for the disinterested reader! They mention the oldest finding of cancer in a skeleton from a cave (in the Andes?) – a woman who’d died with a large bone cancer tumor in her upper arm. The book covers different eras of cancer research and cure attempts and sort of shows how research ‘climbs’ on previous findings… But it shows how many ‘unknowns’ are still out there so although the breast cancer chapter is pretty optimistic (yey!!), many others might make you think ‘shit, the white coats still don’t know what to do.’ It’s also heavy on the names and since the author refers back so much to findings covered in previous chapters, at times it feels like hard work to remember who the hell this guy was who’d being brought up again. -Uh, yeah, but I expect you probably won’t feel like reading that now. Sorry, got carried away with the book review! HUGS!

  8. Heidi

    sounds like an interesting book and something definitely to read when chemo-brain leaves me alone. xxx

    1. Heidi

      YES I saw that on my hour of Google. I will def get there. maybe in the next green week. what is the emperor of all maladies? xxx

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