5 things to know about dietary supplements and cancer treatment

May 08, 2019 | by Doreen Berard, RD, LDN

It’s natural to think that dietary supplements, derived from vitamins, minerals, herbs or plants, are good for you. Advertisements claim this to be true, but those claims aren’t always accurate. This inaccuracy is especially concerning for patients undergoing cancer treatment.

Unfortunately, dietary supplements don’t share the same research requirements and safety regulations that medications do, and they are often self-prescribed without the advice of medical professionals. This can lead to uncertainty about their claims, potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Recent research challenges their claimed effectiveness in relation to cancer and shines a light on potential risks.

For instance, the American Institute for Cancer Research recently shared information related to vitamin D and calcium supplementation, once believed to promote colorectal health. In a five-year study of 2,259 patients with recently removed, precancerous colorectal polyps, 43 percent developed new growths regardless of vitamin D and calcium supplementation.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) acknowledges that the use of vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements during cancer treatment remains controversial, and points to emerging evidence suggesting that even modest use of dietary supplements during cancer treatment may be detrimental.

In addition, the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper that found an estimated 23,000 U.S. emergency room visits every year are due to adverse events related to dietary supplements, most commonly those related to weight loss or energy products.

Finally, because supplements are not scrutinized by regulating institutions, risk of ingesting suboptimal doses or possible contaminants such as heavy metals, microbes and pesticides must be considered.

If you or a loved one are undergoing cancer treatment, consider the following before taking dietary supplements:

  1. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Friends and family are full of well-intended advice to help you along your cancer journey. It can be difficult to sift through all the information that comes your way and determine what’s best. Thank them, jot down their advice and discuss it with your medical team before adding anything new to your treatment regimen. While research can be helpful, turn to your healthcare team, not the internet or your personal network, for medical advice on supplements. According to the ACS, no matter what a supplement’s label claims, it cannot prevent, treat or cure disease.

  2. Develop a rapport with your doctor and dietitian. Your team of healthcare professionals should be considered confidants with whom you feel comfortable discussing all factors of your health and wellness. Let them know if you’ve taken supplements for years or if you’re considering starting now as part of your treatment. They are aware of potential interactions or conditions that can result from using certain supplements during treatment.

  3. Understand that your needs are unique. Cancer treatment can be overwhelming with so much information and advice coming your way. No two patients or cancers are exactly the same. Keep in mind that what is recommended for someone else, may not be recommended for you.

  4. Determine a deficit before considering supplementation. The human body is amazing in its ability to use what it needs, especially when coming from a food source. However, if the body receives an excess of a nutrient via supplementation, it may store it for later, possibly leading to toxicity or other side effects, or it may choose to eliminate the extra through urination. If you’re interested in taking supplements, work with your doctor and dietitian to ensure your body really needs them and then make informed treatment decisions together.

  5. If you choose to supplement, look for the USP label. Patients should avoid taking supplements of any kind without first discussing them with their physician or dietitian. However, when supplements are recommended, be sure to look for the USP Dietary Supplementation Verification Mark. This program helps ensure that certain harmful chemicals or contaminants are not present, and that safe and sanitary manufacturing processes were used.

Are you doing all you can nutrition-wise to maintain strength during cancer treatments to allow for optimal healing? Are you having difficulty with the side effects of treatment? Learn more in a one-on-one appointment with Doreen Berard, RD, LDN, a wellness/oncology dietitian at the Edward Cancer Center in Naperville. Call 630-527-3788.

Learn more about cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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