National Geographic : 2012 Mar
e newest and most sensational claim is that it cures cancer. Oncologists say that no research has been published on the horn's e cacy as a cancer treatment. But even if rhino horn pos- sesses dubious medicinal properties, that doesn't mean it has no e ect on people who take it, says Mary Hardy, medical director of Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology and a traditional medicine expert. "Belief in a treat- ment, especially one that is wildly expensive and hard to get, can have a powerful e ect on how a patient feels," she says. To gain insights into the popularity of rhino horn in Vietnam, I traveled the country with a woman I will call Ms. Thien. A mammo- gram had revealed a spot on her right breast; a sonogram showed a worrisome shadow on an ovary. e attractive and irrepressible -year- old planned to seek modern treatment but also wanted to consult traditional doctors. I asked her if she believed rhino horn might help cure her. "I don't know," she said. "But when you think you might die, it can't hurt to try it." Our travels took us from cancer hospitals and traditional clinics in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to herbal shops, boutiques selling exotic animal skins, and private homes in small towns. We found rhino horn every place we looked. Most of the users we met belonged to Viet- nam's fast-growing middle class and included Western-trained doctors, a bank executive, a mathematician, a real estate salesman, an engi- neer, and a high school teacher, among others. O en families would pool money to buy a piece of horn and share it. Some donated it to gravely ill friends who couldn't a ord it. Mothers gave it to children with measles. Old people swore it cured poor circulation and prevented strokes. Many considered it a sort of super-vitamin. Although a number of Vietnamese doctors I spoke with said rhino horn was not an e ec- tive cure for anything, let alone cancer, several other respected physicians claimed rhino horn could be part of an e ective cancer treatment. Some said they prescribed it in pill form as a palliative for patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Others, including Tran Quoc Binh, director of the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine, which is part of Vietnam's Ministry of Health, believe that rhino horn can retard the growth of certain kinds of tumors. "First we start with modern medicine: chemo- therapy, radiation, surgery," Tran said. "But a er that, maybe some cancer cells still exist. So then we use traditional medicine to ght these cells." He said that a mixture of rhino horn, ginseng, and other herbs could actually block the growth of cancer cells, but he could not produce any peer-reviewed studies to support his claims. One evening in Hanoi, Ms. ien and I visited a busy lakeside café recommended to her by a friend who knew of her health concerns. She explained her situation to the owner, and he pro- duced a chunk of amber-colored horn about the size of a bar of soap and a ceramic dish with a drawing of a rhino on the side. e dish's bottom was rough, like ne-grit sandpaper. He poured several ounces of water into the dish and began to rub the horn in a circular motion on the bot- tom. A er a few minutes, the horn gave o an acrid odor, and the water turned a milky white. e other patrons paid no notice. As he rubbed, the café owner explained that he and a friend had bought the horn as a health supplement and hangover preventive, paying , for about grams. eir interest had been prompted in A mammogram had revealed a spot on Ms. Thien's right breast. I asked her if she believed rhino horn might help cure her if it was cancer. "I don't know," she said. "But when you think you might die, it can't hurt to try it."