When you have a serious disease like cancer, it’s normal to want to search for a miracle cure. If you’ve looked for alternative remedies for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, you’ve probably come across diet recommendations and claims about vitamins and supplements. While these may sound promising, the truth is that there is no miracle cure for this disease. In fact, some of the remedies you’ll read about online could harm you. Still, other complementary treatments may be worth considering.
Here’s a look at what works, what doesn’t, and what could be dangerous.
True: Diet Can Play a Role in Your CLL Treatment
There’s no magic food or eating pattern that will cure your CLL. But a healthy diet can play a role in both CLL risk and treatment.
Research suggests that people who follow a Western-style diet – think high-fat dairy products, processed meat, refined grains, sweets, processed snacks, and high-calorie drinks – are up to 63% more likely to get CLL than those who follow a healthier eating pattern, such as the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on foods like:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy
- Healthy fats like olives
It may be that the Western diet increases inflammation in your body, which in turn raises the risk for CLL.
A healthy diet may not only help prevent CLL, but it could also help with your treatment if you already have CLL. Studies show that a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, may help:
- You tolerate the side effects of treatment better
- Your body replace broken-down cells and tissues
- Support your immune system
True: Exercise Is a Potent Tool
You might think it’s not a good idea to be active during cancer treatment. But research shows exercise could help. Many people with CLL aren’t physically fit. But a 2021 study found that patients who did a 12-week supervised exercise program that included high-intensity interval training (short bursts of intense activity, followed by periods of rest) as well as resistance training saw an improvement in their immune function, which could help you fight CLL.
Aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, if your cancer care team approves.
Physical exercise can also help as you go through CLL treatment as it:
- Lessens fatigue
- Eases depression and anxiety
- Promotes better sleep
- Improves mood
- Boosts fitness and strength
True: Acupuncture May Help
Acupuncture is a form of Chinese medicine in which a practitioner places very thin needles in your skin at specific points on your body. It appears to increase blood flow and signaling between your brain and nerves, which can help with side effects of CLL treatment such as nausea and fatigue. A 2021 review published in the journal BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care found that it helped reduce pain among cancer patients. It doesn’t replace standard treatment, but it can help make that treatment easier.
Check with your doctor before you try it. You will need to avoid it if your blood counts are low, since it raises the risk of bleeding and infection.
False: Marijuana Can Help Treat CLL
Two ingredients in marijuana, CBD and THC, have been shown to kill leukemia cells. But findings come from studies done in petri dishes in labs. No one has tested this concept on real people. It is true that two synthetic forms of marijuana – dronabinol (Marinol, Syndros) and nabilone (Cesamet) – are FDA-approved to relieve the nausea and vomiting brought on by chemotherapy. But that doesn’t mean they treat the cancer itself.
Doctors don’t recommend that you smoke marijuana, or take CBD or THC on your own, to treat the side effects of chemotherapy. The products you may find online or in local stores aren’t regulated, so you have no idea what you’re getting.
False: Supplements Can Treat CLL
There’s simply not enough evidence to support this claim. One very small study of just 30 patients published in the journal Blood in 2018 found that 93% of those who took 8 grams of curcumin and 10,000 IU of vitamin D3 for four 6-week cycles didn’t see their disease progress after 29 months.
No follow-up studies have repeated the outcome of this small curcumin and vitamin D study. Thirty patients aren’t nearly enough to prove a connection between the vitamins and the disease outcome. Clinical trials that prove a medication is effective against a disease typically include thousands of patients. Also, high doses of curcumin have been linked to side effects such as diarrhea, headache, and stomach pain.
Some patients have touted green tea supplements as a way to treat CLL, but there’s not enough evidence to support its use either. It’s thought to kill off B-cell lymphoma cells, where the cancer grows. But a 2018 review published in Clinical Lymphoma, Myeloma & Leukemia concluded that there’s not enough proof that it does anything, and, in fact, very high doses of green tea can cause GI upset and possibly even liver disease.
True: You Should Ask Your Doctor About Supplements First
It may not seem like a big deal to try a vitamin, supplement, or herb to see if it will help treat your CLL. But it’s very important to speak to your doctor about it first.
Many cancer doctors don’t want patients to take these during treatment. There are a few reasons why:
- Since these over-the-counter products aren’t FDA approved, they’re not tested for quality. They may have more of an active ingredient, or less of one, than the label says. They may also contain microorganisms or pesticides that could hurt you. These are especially dangerous if you already have cancer.
- Certain products can cause allergic reactions, GI problems, or liver damage. Some herbs also raise your risk of blood clots, which are already more common in CLL patients.
- Megadoses of vitamins can also have side effects, including possibly dangerous interactions with your cancer medications. For example, while you might have read that vitamin C is good for CLL, it can also make certain chemotherapy drugs less effective.
In addition, when it comes to complementary therapies in general, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society recommends that you ask your doctor the following questions before you try something new on your own:
- Are there any complementary therapies that you recommend?
- What research is available about their safety and efficacy?
- What are the pros and cons?
- How can I tell if a certain therapy works?
- Are there complementary therapies that may interfere with my CLL treatment?
- Which therapies should I avoid?
- Are there any clinical trials of complementary therapies that I could take part in?
- Can you refer me to a complementary health practitioner for treatment?
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Haematologica: “Adherence to the Western, Prudent, and Mediterranean Dietary Patterns and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia in the MCC-Spain Study.”
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: “Food and Nutrition.”
Blood: “A Phase II Study of Curcumin and Vitamin D in Previously Untreated Patients with Early-Stage Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) or Small Lymphocytic Lymphoma (SLL).”
Linus Pauling Institute Oregon State University: “Curcumin.”
CLL Society: “Being Our Own CLL Advocate.”
Clinical Lymphoma, Myeloma & Leukemia: “Evidence For and Against Green Tea and Turmeric in the Management of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.”
Scientific Reports: “A Pilot Study of High-Intensity Interval Training in Older Adults with Treatment Naïve Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.”
American Cancer Society: “Physical Activity and the Person with Cancer.”
Leukemia Care: “Living Well with CLL.”
International Journal of Oncology: “Anticancer Effects of Phytocannabinoids Used with Chemotherapy in Leukaemia Cells Can Be Improved by Altering the Sequence of their Administration.”
American Society of Clinical Oncology: “Is CBD Safe for People with Cancer?”
BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care: “Acupuncture for Palliative Cancer Pain Management: Systemic Review.”