Cancer and Supplements: Yes or No?

by Brian English

Anyone living with cancer has surely heard at least something about dietary supplements. And not long after hearing about them, you’ve probably heard all kinds of opinions – some pro-supplements, some anti-supplements. Indeed, the use of dietary supplements by cancer patients is a long-running discussion. The question remains: is it safe to take dietary supplements while you’re living with cancer or undergoing cancer treatments?

Cancer And Supplements, Yes Or No

It’s not an easy question to answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” While dietary supplements can offer many crucial benefits to cancer patients, these same supplements may also pose significant health risks to some patients depending on the kind of treatment they’re receiving and what kind of cancer they’re battling.

What follows is a brief review of some of the basic pros and cons of the supplements and cancer issue. Additionally, there are some helpful tips on how to safely choose dietary supplements.

WARNING: Before you read any further, the most important thing to know is that you should ALWAYS check with your oncologist before taking ANY supplements. Every patient’s situation is different and we can only cover the very basics of the topic in a short blog entry. So please – CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR.

THE GOOD: SUPPLEMENTS CAN BE NUTRITIOUS

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Keeping up your strength during chemotherapy treatments can pose a real challenge. While a healthy diet is a preferred way to meet your nutritional needs, nausea and other side effects of your treatment can make eating unpleasant or even impossible. This can make vitamin supplements an attractive option for getting needed vitamins and minerals back into your body.

THE BAD: SUPPLEMENTS CAN BE INEFFECTIVE AND EVEN DANGEROUS

Some studies have shown that supplements may have minimal impact on your health and nutrition and may, in fact, even help to fuel the growth of some cancers.

From a young age, many of us have had the health benefits of liberal doses of Vitamin C touted to us by orange juice companies and various supplement producers. But a 1995 report showed that cancers cells can actually thrive in the presence of Vitamin C, and some studies even indicate that the use of Vitamin C supplements can lower cancer survival rates. The American Cancer Society has even gone so far as to say that the use of any supplements during cancer treatments should be avoided. Additionally, many supplements are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). This doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily toxic, only that they have not been thoroughly tested.

THE BAD: SUPPLEMENTS MAY EXCEED RECOMMENDED DOSAGES

Secondly, many of the single dosages of these supplements can be as much as three or four times above the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of the vitamin in question. High-dose antioxidant supplements can actually neutralize the cancer-fighting free radicals created by radiation and chemotherapy treatments. That’s right: taking some of these supplements can actually protect cancer that your chemotherapy is trying to kill. And no patient wants to endure a long, arduous course of chemo for no good reason.

THE GOOD: SOME FOODS CAN BE GREAT SUPPLEMENTS

There’s a reason that this topic is the source of so much controversy. It seems that each argument has an equally convincing counter-argument. And that extends not only to supplements that come in pills and powders but even foods. For example, there are studies that show that eating whole cloves of garlic can decrease the risk of stomach and colorectal cancers. But garlic supplement pills don’t have the same effect.

As you can see, there are reasons to be both encouraged and concerned about the health benefits of some dietary supplements for cancer patients. Here are some basic guidelines for making safe choices when choosing supplements.

SAFE SUPPLEMENT USE: THE DO’S AND DON’TS

DO Research Before You Buy
Do your homework. It’s a mistake to rely solely on the information provided by the product manufacturers: it’s usually biased. Search for reviews from reliable third-party sources, like medical researchers or government agencies.

DON’T Take Mixed Supplements
More ingredients can also mean a greater chance of harmful effects. Mixed supplements also make it more difficult to determine which of the ingredients is responsible for causing any side effects.

DO Check the Label
Remember, reputable supplement manufacturers will provide detailed contact information on their labels in case you have questions or concerns about their product. Avoid supplements that don't include this information on their packaging.

DON’T Look for “Miracle Cures.”

Health Scams
Steer clear of products that claim to be “breakthroughs” or “new discoveries.” Avoid supplements that claim to have tons of benefits but zero side effects. And stay away from anything with a so-called “secret ingredient.” And if any supplement claims that it “cures cancer” or “stops tumor growth,” it’s being sold illegally.

DO Follow the Instructions
The dosage limits on the label are there for a reason. Follow them to avoid overdoses. And never take a dietary supplement for longer than recommended.

DON’T Take More Than One Supplement at a Time
Start slowly and note of any side effects you have after taking the product. Report any negative reactions to your doctor immediately.

The bottom line is that there’s just no simple answer to this question. It’s OK to delve into the Internet to find out more about this issue, but be warned: many pro-supplement sites online are cleverly disguised ads created by the supplement makers themselves. And for every 10 websites you read, you’re likely to get 12 different opinions on the issue. Supplements are worth exploring for cancer patients. But as we’ve said above, you should always talk to your oncologist before making taking any supplement.

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