Benefits and Dangers of Vitamin Supplements for Cancer Patients

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By Lucy Richardson, MD Anderson Staff Writer

In the latest Cancer Newsline podcast from MD Anderson, Lisa Garvin talks with Richard Lee, M.D., medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center, and Laura Michaud, manager of clinical pharmacy services, about the effects supplements can have on cancer. 

They discuss a variety of topics, from beta-carotene's impact on lung cancer to antioxidants' interference with radiation treatment. They combine their knowledge and expertise to help inform the public on the benefits and dangers of vitamin supplements.

In this episode they share three important tips for patients who choose to take vitamin supplements.

Bring your meds with you
It's important for doctors to have an accurate list of what the patient is taking. Doctors encourage patients to not only bring a list of drugs they are taking, but to also bring the bottles the medications come in -- both prescription and non-prescription items. It's important for supplements because so many have different ingredients. If it's a brand name, there might be five different kinds of that certain brand and it's difficult to know what's in it. It's also important to know dosages and whether it's a combination product or just a single agent product.

The most important recommendation for cancer patients is to maintain open conversation with their doctors.

Consult a dietitian
One of the biggest resources at MD Anderson is dietary consults with nutritionists. They help patients track what they're eating, how they're eating it and the way the food is prepared.

Dietitians help patients make better choices with whole foods and, if they need additional assistance, suggest a good general multi-vitamin. However, "a lot of the vitamins that are out there have mega-doses in them and you really need to be careful about the amounts of things and how they add up," Michaud says.

Supplementation can be an important part of staying healthy, especially for those who have diagnosed deficiencies. But patients as a whole should think about food and nutrition as a best source of vitamins and minerals, rather than trying to achieve that through pills, powders or liquids.

Reputable online resources
Through online resources, patients can check into the efficacy and safety of herbal or natural supplements. MD Anderson has several online articles and web pages that provide information about supplements and nutrition. The Learning Center at MD Anderson can also provide information on other reputable online resources.  


What is helpful is employing the mind/body connection in the form of qigong, Chinese internal energy exercises. Never mind about chi, or vitalism; qigong has great benefits from a Western point-of-view:

Qigong helped me immensely in my successful battles with four bouts of supposedly terminal bone lymphoma cancer in the early nineties. I practiced standing post meditation, one of the most powerful forms of qigong--as an adjunct to chemotherapy, which is how it should always be used.

Qigong kept me strong in many ways: it calmed my mind--taking me out of the fight-or-flight syndrome, which pumps adrenal hormones into the system that could interfere with healing. The deep abdominal breathing pumped my lymphatic system—a vital component of the immune system. In addition, qigong energized and strengthened my body at a time when I couldn't do Western exercise such as weight-lifting or jogging--the chemo was too fatiguing. And it empowered my will and reinforced it every day with regular practice. In other words, I contributed to the healing process, instead of just depending solely on the chemo and the doctors. Clear 15 years and still practicing!

Thank you for this podcast. Both doctors stress the importance of acquiring our nutrients, vitamins and minerals from our food. However, many, if not most, cancer patients simply do not have an appetite for food which limits their intake and thus, nutritional benefit. Many cancer patients lack the energy to prepare nutritious meals even if they could muster an appetite. Both doctors repeated the supplement message that I have heard for over 15 years, i..e. "food is best." I think a more patient-centered approach would be to acknowledge that a cancer patient's appetite may be limited, preparation ability may be limited, meal preparation by a caregiver may be limited, and therefore, develop a plan for supplementation guidelines that can be modified for each patient using companies that adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices. Annual deaths from pharmaceuticals are in the high five figures. Annual deaths from neutraceuticals (supplements) are either insignificant or non-existent. I think oncologists (and all doctors) need to be more proactive in investigating and recommending supplementation for their patients ti maximize their patient's daily wellbeing. I have no conflict of interest disclosures - I do not represent any company that manufactures or distributes supplements (neutraceuticals). Thank you. Carole G.

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