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Supplements for Cancer: Iron

Cancer itself can cause fatigue. But this debilitating lack of energy can also be caused by cancer treatments. In fact, fatigue is a side effect experienced by nine out of 10 people undergoing cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, or radiation therapy.

These treatments can damage cells in your bone marrow that are responsible for making red blood cells and lead to iron-deficiency anemia. With this type of anemia your red blood cells do not contain enough hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout your body. Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, and iron supplements may improve the fatigue caused by iron-deficiency anemia.

“Someone with a high need for extra iron might take iron supplements,” says Byers, but most people can get the iron they need from food. One “trick” is to take vitamin C with meals in order to enhance the absorption of the iron in food.

Always check with your doctor before taking iron supplements, even if you think you’re anemic. Too much iron in your body can damage your liver and heart. Everyone who takes iron, including the iron in multivitamins, should do so under a doctor’s supervision.

Supplements for Cancer: L-glutamine

Peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage, is a common side effect of certain drugs, including the widely prescribed chemotherapy drug paclitaxel.

“[Paclitaxel] can be used to treat a lot of different cancer types – lung cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer,” Birdsall tells WebMD. “The amino acid l-glutamine has been shown in numerous studies to be helpful at preventing or treating peripheral neuropathy – pain, numbness, and tingling – associated with [paclitaxel].”

L-glutamine, taken orally, has also been shown in one study to reduce the peripheral neuropathy associated with oxaliplatin, a chemotherapy drug used to treat colorectal cancer.

Key Points to Remember When Considering Supplements for Cancer

  • Cut through the hype and obtain your information about cancer supplements from reliable sources. Beware of advertisements. There’s a lot of marketing hype out there.
  • No matter how harmless you think a vitamin or supplement might be, check with your doctor about potential interactions with your other treatments.

If your doctor does give you the go ahead to use certain vitamins and supplements for cancer, make sure you purchase brands of supplements that have been analyzed by, or that bear a USP or NF seal on the label. The USP and NF seals indicate the supplements have undergone quality control testing.

Remember, the use of vitamins and supplements for cancer is largely based on short-term studies, done mostly in the lab. More studies are needed – and fortunately more research is on its way.

“Only recently are government agencies providing grants to do research on dietary supplements and complementary and alternative therapies,” says pharmacist and licensed acupuncturist K. Simon Yeung, the clinical coordinator of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center About Herbs database.

“In the near future, we will see more reports from these government-funded studies, which hopefully will guide us to use these dietary supplements more appropriately,” Yeung says.

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