If you’re among the 1.5 million people in the United States diagnosed with cancer each year, you may be considering taking vitamins and supplements for cancer. Supplements, herbs, and extracts are increasingly used in integrative medicine to:
First, many supplements may interfere with your cancer treatment, so never take anything without discussing it with your cancer doctor and treatment team. Your cancer treatment center or hospital may have an integrative medicine division. That’s a good place to start if you want to know what herbs, teas, or nutritional supplements can help you stay strong and cope with treatment side effects.
Second, research or ask your treatment team about the best supplements for your specific situation. Most supplements have not been studied extensively in large clinical trials. It’s important to choose wisely, and be informed.
1. Maintaining a Strong Immune System When You Have Cancer
The complicated relationship between immune system functioning and cancer is often misunderstood, according to Tim Birdsall, ND, the vice president of integrative medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America and a member of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine for the National Institutes of Health.
Your immune system is designed to recognize and destroy abnormal cells. But in many instances, especially in early stage cancers, the surface markers on cancerous cells are identical to those on normal cells, making it impossible for your immune system to recognize them as a threat.
Although boosting your immune system isn’t an actual treatment for cancer, it’s incredibly important as you fight cancer. Cancer patients are susceptible to infection from the disease, as well as from treatments that destroy white blood cells.
“Infection is a huge issue to cancer patients,” Birdsall says. “It is important to do things to boost the immune system and reduce the likelihood of infection.”
Here are supplements, vitamins, and extracts you may hear about to help boost the immune system.
Supplements for Cancer: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is one of the most studied supplements for cancer prevention and treatment right now.
“Vitamin D is of interest not so much because of results of clinical trials, but because of our evolving understanding of the key role it plays in cell [development] and the fact that so many people are really deficient in vitamin D,” says Tim Byers, MD, deputy director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center.
Epidemiological studies have found that people with cancer often have lower circulating levels of vitamin D in their blood. However, the research is mixed.
In a study presented at the 2008 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, researchers found that vitamin D deficiency was more common among women diagnosed with breast cancer. The study also found that vitamin D deficiency may raise the risk of breast cancer spreading, and raise the risk of death from breast cancer.
But in a large National Cancer Institute study, researchers found no association between blood levels of vitamin D and cancer death, with the possible exception of colorectal cancer. People with high levels of vitamin D were 72% less likely than those with low levels to die of colorectal cancer.
Also, some studies have found that vitamin D may protect against prostate cancer, while other studies have found that it doesn’t help.
There continues to be a flurry of research looking at vitamin D’s role in cancer. More research is needed to truly understand the relationship.
Supplements for Cancer: Garlic
Many studies have found that people who eat a lot of garlic are less likely to develop certain common cancers.
That garlic research has led scientists to wonder whether garlic may have cancer-treating properties as well as cancer-prevention capabilities. Although studies are not yet conclusive, there is some evidence that garlic may be useful for cancer in conjunction with medical treatments.
For starters, garlic may be beneficial for cancer patients owing to its immune-boosting abilities, which vary depending on how the garlic has been processed. Additionally, certain substances found in garlic have been shown to suppress growth and fight certain cancerous cells in the lab, including forms of breast and lung cancer.
Early studies have shown that eating garlic can decrease the risk of colorectal cancer and stomach cancer. The same benefit was not found with garlic supplements. However, preliminary prostate cancer research on men in China has shown that both eating garlic and garlic supplements may decrease the risk of prostate cancer.
Supplements for Cancer: Green Tea
Green tea contains substances called polyphenols that are believed to have powerful anti-cancer abilities.
Cancerous tumors rely on fast-growing networks of blood vessels to sustain their rapid growth rate. Green tea compounds may possess the ability to help slow or prevent this rapid growth. “Green tea seems to inhibit the development of new blood vessels in tumors, and provides one more approach that can be used to strangle tumors,” Birdsall tells WebMD.
Because it would take the equivalent of drinking 10 to 12 cups of green tea each day to obtain the cancer-fighting levels of green tea compounds, Birdsall recommends that his patients take green tea in extract form. Be aware, there are some concerns about green tea extracts and liver toxicity. Also, a recommendation of 10 to 12 cups of green tea per day would be for cancer treatment, not cancer prevention.
Drinking green tea may increase the survival rates of some cancer patients. One study of women with ovarian cancer found that women who drank green tea were more likely to survive three years after ovarian cancer diagnosis than women who did not drink green tea. The survival rates increased with higher consumption levels of green tea.
Drinking green tea may also help prevent certain cancers. Preliminary research suggests a possible protective effect against bladder, esophageal, pancreatic, ovarian, and possibly cervical cancer, even with as little as 3-5 cups a day. Evidence for breast, stomach, and lung cancer is mixed: studies have conflicting findings.
Supplements for Cancer: Mushroom Products
Extracts from mushrooms have been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. More recent scientific studies are beginning to determine reasons for their potential health-promoting actions.
For example, polysaccharides (phytochemicals) from the Ganoderma lucidum mushroom have been shown to inhibit the growth and invasiveness of some cancer cells in the laboratory, including certain forms of breast cancer.
Other fungal varieties that may exhibit anti-cancer activity include reishi, shiitake, maitake and coriolus or turkey tail, mushrooms.
Lentinan, a substance found in shiitake mushrooms, has been shown in the lab to inhibit the growth of human colon cancer cells in mice. This may result from lentinan’s ability to inhibit some enzymes that promote the activity of cancer-causing substances called carcinogens. Beta-glucan, a compound found in maitake mushrooms, is also thought to have tumor-fighting properties, though data on these abilities is still quite limited.
Keep in mind that the studies so far have looked at how these mushroom extracts affect cancer cells in the lab, with only a few documenting the effects in the human body. More research is needed.
Supplements for Cancer: Antioxidants
Antioxidants are substances found in abundance in fruits and vegetables – and in lesser amounts in nuts, grains, and meat. These phytochemicals fight certain oxygen molecules in your body known as free radicals, which can damage DNA and contribute to the development and proliferation of cancerous cells.
The use of antioxidants for cancer prevention and treatment is a controversial and confusing topic. Although experts once believed that megadoses of certain antioxidants, including vitamins A and E, might be beneficial, clinical studies have raised questions about the safety of this practice. Studies have shown that high doses of certain antioxidants can increase cancer occurrence in some populations. For instance, smokers who take high doses of beta carotene are at increased risk for lung cancer.
Some experts worry that the use of antioxidants during radiation therapy and chemotherapy might serve to protect the very cancer cells that are being targeted. A 2008 study in Cancer Research showed that vitamin C supplements blunted the effectiveness of chemotherapy by 30% to 70%.
Although more research needs to be done, there is data to suggest that antioxidant supplements may improve quality of life for some cancer patients. For example, the combined use of antioxidants in green tea, melatonin, and multivitamins containing high doses of vitamins C and E was shown to reduce pain and fatigue in patients being treated for pancreatic cancer.
In the meantime, there’s no doubt that a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, has numerous health benefits.
Be sure to talk with your cancer treatment team before taking antioxidant supplements when you have cancer.
2. Coping with Treatment Side Effects When You Have Cancer
People with cancer often turn to vitamins and supplements to reduce the side effects of cancer treatment: Nausea from chemotherapy, nerve pain, or debilitating fatigue.
Keep in mind, there are hundreds of chemotherapy drugs. The vitamins and supplements that may help you will depend on your specific treatment.
To optimize your health and reduce the risk of dangerous interactions, don’t take supplements for side effects without talking with your cancer treatment team. Your cancer doctors can help you develop a comprehensive treatment.
Supplements for Cancer: Ginger
Nausea and vomiting are two of the most common side effects of chemotherapy for cancer. These side effects can be serious. Nausea and vomiting can lead to weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, and fatigue, which can make it harder for your body to fight cancer.
There are a number of anti-nausea medications available. But some patients with cancer also find that using ginger, either alone or in conjunction with anti-nausea medicine, significantly reduces nausea and vomiting.
The evidence is conflicting, but a recent study found that cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who consumed a high protein drink with ginger twice a day during treatment reported significantly less nausea and were less likely to require traditional anti-nausea medications.
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
“[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 ConsumerLab.com, 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.