Supplements During Cancer: Help or Hype?

Are supplements and nutraceuticals during cancer treatment helpful or all hype?

Alyssa Phillips keeps a plastic bin labeled “Hope” stashed in her pantry. Inside are her daily supplements: vitamins D3 and K2, astragalus root and more than two dozen bottles of other supplements. She takes them four times every day in divided doses. Wherever she goes, the box goes with her. It even accompanied her to the bone marrow transplant unit.

Three years ago, at the age of 31, Phillips received a diagnosis of a rare form of cervical cancer that had already metastasized to her liver. “Ironically, I had just finished with my best time ever in a half-marathon just six weeks before,” says Phillips, who lives in Atlanta. “I literally had never felt better.”

Her doctors gave her a slim chance of surviving, saying her best option was a radical hysterectomy, followed by chemotherapy so powerful it would annihilate her bone marrow—which is why, after undergoing the hysterectomy and some initial rounds of regular chemotherapy, she checked into the bone marrow transplant unit at Northside Hospital in November 2008 for two consecutive rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, each followed by a bone marrow transplant [stem cell rescue].

Phillips, a physician’s assistant with an undergraduate degree in nutrition, has had an interest in supplements that long preceded her illness. But when she found herself facing cancer, she started buying them as if her life depended on it. Because to her, it did. When the time came to rescue her bone marrow, she had already discussed her supplement cocktail with her doctors. They advised against taking anything during treatment because doing so carried so many uncertainties about interactions. She chose to anyway, tossing a jacket over her Hope Box in her bedside cart so the nurses wouldn’t spy it, and taking the pills in secret. “It was my choice,” she says. “I did my research, and I felt comfortable there was no risk. I believed strongly that the supplements I was taking were a ‘difference-maker’ for me.”

While about half of adult Americans currently take some type of supplement, use is even higher for people who have experienced cancer, with estimates as high as 81 percent. “People come in sometimes with suitcases full of bottles,” says Michaud.

As with Phillips, supplements can give cancer survivors hope and a feeling of control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Patients also receive a lot of pressure from their support circle to take something.

“Well-meaning friends, family members and colleagues will often say, ‘I read this on the Internet,’ or, ‘I knew this person, who knew this person, and this cured them,’” Michaud continues. “There are a lot of people out there trying to sell things, and it’s all over the Internet. Sometimes it’s very hard for a patient to say no.”

But should you? No one can really say for sure, says Brian Lawenda, MD, clinical director of 21st Century Oncology in Las Vegas. Lawenda is a Harvard-trained radiation oncologist and trained medical acupuncturist who uses evidence-based complementary therapies with his patients.

He says studies have not found consistent evidence of either benefit or harm—results are all over the map, depending on the supplement, the population studied and the dose. These studies are typically small and therefore not very informative.

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