if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, your options may seem limited: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation—or all of the above. Nutritional therapies, however, can complement conventional therapies by enhancing the healing process, fighting the cancer, reducing drug and radiation side effects, and often improving your long-term survival odds.
But if you mention vitamin supplements to oncologists— the doctors who specialize in cancer treatment—you’ll probably get a big thumb’s down. As a general rule, oncologists discourage patients from taking supplemental vitamins and antioxidants.
Why so? The reason relates to the theory behind radiation and most chemo drugs. Both therapies produce large numbers of destructive molecules known as free radicals, which oncologists hope will destroy more cancer cells than normal cells. Antioxidants and some vitamins are known to neutralize free radicals, so many oncologists believe that supplements will negate the benefits of radiation and chemo.
But this line of thinking is mostly theoretical, not proven—a fact that oncologists shy away from acknowledging. Furthermore, high-dose antioxidants and vitamin supplements actually work through a variety of mechanisms that can give cancer patients an edge. Supplements can enhance immune system function, inhibit the growth of cancer cells, and reduce metastasizing behavior.
If you want to take a cautious approach, you can take supplements after you finish chemo or radiation. But compelling research suggests that you might be better off taking supplements during the treatment process.
SUPPORTING THE HEALING PROCESS
Nearly all cancer patients first have surgery to reduce the tumor mass. Surgery and anesthesia are stresses and, as with any other serious injury, people need extra nutritional support to promote the healing process. This is the time to adopt the very best eating habits, including quality proteins (fish, chicken) and lots of vegetables and fruits.
A high-potency multivitamin is de rigueur. So is plenty of vitamin C—it helps speed healing after surgery. A recent study found that surgery completely depleted patients’ vitamin C reserves, and the researchers calculated that surgical patients need 1,150 mg of vitamin C daily to restore normal blood levels of the nutrient. While that amount is helpful, it likely falls short of optimal levels.
SUPPLEMENTS THAT COMPLEMENT CONVENTIONAL THERAPIES
Several doctors have reviewed human studies in which high-dose supplements were used in conjunction with chemo and radiation. In the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Charles Simone, MD, of Lawrenceville, NJ, reviewed 50 human studies and concluded that supplements decrease side effects from chemo and radiation and increase the benefits of both of those therapies. Keith Block, MD, of Evanston, IL, noted that supplements help reduce tumor size and lengthen survival. Ralph Moss, PhD, author of the Moss Reports, wrote that supplements can actually make tumors more susceptible to radiation.
Why Higher Doses Are Needed
Nutritionally oriented physicians often point out that low-dose supplements are of little, if any, benefit for cancer patients. These doctors, such as Simone and Block, recommend relatively large amounts of supplements to their cancer patients. So don’t shy away from taking hefty amounts of vitamin supplements. To find a nutritionally oriented physician, search naturopathic.org or acam.org.
Here’s the latest research on supplements as a complement to conventional cancer therapies.
Coenzyme Q10. Over nine years, Niels Hertz, MD, of Vipperoed, Denmark, treated 41 patients with end-stage cancers. The patients included men and women with a variety of cancers, including breast, esophagus, lung, pancreas, and prostate cancers. In all cases, the cancers had metastasized to other organs. The supplements provided 300 mg of CoQ10, 487 mcg of selenium, 25,000 IU of vitamin A, and 126,000 IU of beta-carotene. Hertz compared the patients’ expected survival time with their actual length of survival. Although some patients had a decrease or no change in survival time, three-fourths of the patients lived an average of five months longer than expected. In some cases, patients lived years longer than expected.
Lycopene. Found in tomatoes, this antioxidant can benefit men with prostate cancer. In a study conducted at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, doctors tracked 26 men scheduled for surgery for prostate cancer. Fifteen of the men were given 30 mg of natural-source lycopene daily, and after just three weeks they showed signs of tumor shrinkage. The men also had an average 18 percent reduction in levels of prostate specific antigen, a sign of reduced tumor activity. Other studies have found similar benefits, and lycopene may be of benefit in other types of cancer.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Large amounts of DHA, one of the omega-3 fats, can improve life expectancy in women with breast cancer. French researchers followed 25 women with breast cancer who were treated with chemo and also asked to take 1.8 grams of DHA daily for five months. Almost half of the women responded positively to DHA supplements. Overall survival was almost two years—and almost three years among the women who had the highest blood levels of DHA. The results were striking given that two- thirds of the women had metastases to
the liver, lungs, or bones.
Vitamin E. Italian doctors used high doses of the drug cisplatin to treat 41 patients, who had lung, brain, endometrial, and other types of cancer. Cisplatin causes nerve damage in 90 percent of the people who take the drug. Before chemotherapy began and continuing for three months afterwards, 17 of the patients were given 600 IU of natural-source vitamin E, and 24 were given placebos. Only one of the patients taking vitamin E developed neuropathy, compared with 10 of those taking placebos. Vitamin E did not interfere with chemotherapy.
Pycnogenol. Italian doctors treated 80 cancer patients with surgery, followed by either chemo or radiation. Some of the patients were also given either 150 mg of Pycnogenol or placebos
daily. Pycnogenol supplements reduced nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in patients receiving either chemo or radiation. It also reduced chemo-related side effects by about half, as well as some radiation side effects.
Silymarin. A study of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia found that supplemental silymarin, an extract of milk thistle, reduced the risk of chemo-induced hepatitis. Dosages ranged from 80 to 320 mg daily, based on body weight.
Omega-3s. Weight loss after surgery can complicate recovery, and cachexia often occurs in end-stage cancer patients. Two studies have found that omega-3 fish oils can help patients maintain their weight. In one study, researchers found that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) helped cancer patients maintain their weight after surgery. In the other report, doctors found that high-dose EPA (4.7 grams daily) and DHA (2.8 grams daily) slowed weight loss and helped one-third of patients gain weight.
Curcumin. Some 20 human studies are currently underway using 2—8 grams of curcumin (an extract of the spice turmeric) daily as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapies. Researchers from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Treatment Center, Houston, have so far reported that curcumin supplements had modest benefits in the treatment of patients with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease.
Vitamin C. Last but not least, researchers have found that a combination of intravenous (IV) and oral vitamin C can have a potent anti-cancer effect. Very high IV doses of vitamin C are toxic to cancer cells, based on studies conducted by scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. While vitamin C supplements promote healing and have other benefits, only IV vitamin C can boost blood concentrations to the very high levels capable of killing cancer cells. A combination of IV and oral vitamin C can also benefit end-stage cancer patients, improving their appetites and overall quality of life.
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