Delicious Living Blog

Cancer and supplements: a minefield of controversy

Nutrients such as magnesium and vitamin D are associated with significantly lower risk for some cancers, according to studies. But when it comes to cancer treatment and supplements, science lags behind public interest in natural, complementary therapies.

Statistically, it’s bound to affect all of us at some point: Over 1.6 million new cancer cases are predicted in the U.S. in 2012 alone. Personally, among family and friends over the last couple years I have witnessed several bouts of colon cancer (one incurable, one in remission, and one currently in treatment for stage 3), plus a case of skin cancer (removed). Breast cancer and leukemia also lurk a little further back in our family history.

In no arena is the tension higher between conventional medicine and supplements than in cancer prevention and treatment. Cancer organizations rightly warn against supplements or treatments making unsubstantiated claims about prevention or cure. Supplement use is widely discouraged by doctors during cancer treatment, and yet over 40 percent of cancer patients may use supplements anyway, according to a 2008 American Cancer Society survey. It's likely those numbers have not decreased over the last four years.

Research suggests that nutrients such as magnesium and vitamin D are associated with significantly lower risk for some cancers, and preliminary findings suggest that supplemental curcumin (a phytonutrient extract from the curry spice turmeric) may increase the effectiveness of cancer drugs and interfere with cancer-cell communication (thus inhibiting cancer growth). Results from a recent small study in cancer patients suggest that grapefruit juice may increase the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments, thus lowering the amount of the drug needed for treatment.

Most findings are far from conclusive, and many supplements can actually decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Science lags behind public interest in complimentary supplement use. Generally, during treatment, oncologists recommend patients get nutrients through a robust diet high in fruits and vegetables, and fiber—also the recommended diet for prevention.

See Delicious Living's Best Anticancer Foods with 26 Recipes.

Why is cancer-supplement research so inconclusive? Blame the complexity of the situation: Supplements of the same type can vary widely in potency, active constituents are not always known, and each phytochemical or nutrient can function differently according to the patient’s body. 

Bottom line: Each case of cancer is unique—and more research is needed. Before taking any supplements during treatment, consult with your doctor.

Many experts say that the best way to treat cancer is to prevent it in the first place. According to decades of research, diet, exercise, sleep, and other wellness habits can have a significant impact on overall risk. Lowering inflammation and increasing the body’s natural immunity is key. Along these lines, Lise Alschuler, ND, one of Delicious Living’s advisory board members has written about cancer prevention in her latest book, Five to Thrive (Active Interest Media, 2011).

Share your thoughts on supplements and cancer prevention in the comments.

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