Some people stubbornly embrace the new as the one true way, when plenty of evidence shows that the old ways shouldn’t be simply tossed aside. Such is the case with dietary supplements and cancer drugs. Even if you embrace the new (chemotherapy and radiation treatments), is it necessary to completely toss aside the old (herbals and natural antioxidants)? How foolish would that be?
Last month I came across a US study from the University of Houston (UH), which was reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Researchers surveyed 500 women about their use of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs). Half of the women were patients diagnosed with breast cancer, and half were diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer such as ovarian cancer.
Just under half of the women were found to be taking some type of herbal treatment or dietary supplement. But among these subjects, only 53 percent had talked with their doctors about CAM use. The UH team concluded by noting that because CAM use is common among female cancer patients, more studies are needed to explore the therapeutic benefits of CAM therapies, as well as potential drug interactions with CAMs. In addition, the researchers called for more education about CAM products for both patients and healthcare providers.
I’m in complete agreement with these conclusions; especially the emphasis placed on improving communication between patients and doctors about CAM use. But the positive attitude toward CAM in this study was somewhat undercut by comments made to Reuters Health by a member of the research team, Dr. Judith A. Smith of the University of Texas.
Dr. Smith began by observing that some CAM therapies may decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy. This idea is based on the long-standing belief that antioxidant vitamins may interfere with some chemotherapy drugs that work by creating oxidizing compounds that kill cancer cells. Dr. Smith’s recommendation: Cancer patients should ‘refrain from using CAM therapy while receiving chemotherapy until all treatment is completed.’
Where’s the baby? He just sailed out the window along with Dr. Smith’s bathwater. Because if all cancer patients follow Dr. Smith’s advice, many of them will be turning away from treatments that could significantly increase the effectiveness of their therapy AND reduce the severity of the side effects chemo is so well known for.
Why all the treatment options should be explored
In spite of the fact that many types of chemotherapies produce free radicals, there is no clinical evidence to support the theory that the benefits of chemo are compromised by antioxidants. In fact, at least one study indicates the exact opposite.
In a 2002 trial, Italian researchers enlisted 52 colon cancer patients who were receiving a chemotherapy called oxaliplatin. Through 12 cycles of treatment, half of the subjects were given a placebo, while the other half received the powerful antioxidant glutathione, administered intravenously at the time they received their chemo.
At the end of the dozen treatments, researchers found that the subjects who received the placebo had a ‘statistically significant’ amount of nerve damage compared to the group that received glutathione.
Meanwhile, there was no indication that the presence of glutathione inhibited the chemotherapy from shrinking cancer tumours. In fact, subjects in the glutathione group were found to have slightly greater tumour shrinkage than the group that received placebo.
Of course, this single trial doesn’t begin to resolve the question of how the many different types of antioxidants might influence the effect of a wide variety of chemotherapies. But to simply toss out all CAM procedures across the board, as Dr. Smith would have cancer patients do, would be like a carpenter deciding not to use half of the tools in his toolbox.
In many previous e-Alerts I’ve discussed different aspects of treating cancer with CAM therapies. Here are just a few of the highlights:
In 2001 a Canadian team used an animal study to demonstrate how the herb echinacea may sharply increase the number of ‘natural killer’ cells that help the immune system control leukaemia. Researchers stated that the ‘survival advantage’ of using echinacea could be ‘highly significant.’
Research conducted by a major drug company revealed that extracts of the Amazonian Graviola tree actually seek out, attack, and destroy cancer cells, without harming healthy cells.
In two different studies, ashwagandha (also known as Indian ginseng) was shown to make cancer tumours more sensitive to radiation therapy. And a 1994 animal study demonstrated how ashwagandha may help prevent two harsh side effects of chemotherapy: the weakening of bone marrow and the abnormal decrease of white blood cells.
An animal study at the University of Rochester Medical Center showed that curcumin (a spice that gives curry its colour) may significantly reduce the inflammation and scarring that are common with radiation therapy.
In the 1970s, doctors found that 547 breast-cancer patients who used mistletoe after tumour removal had significantly increased 5- and 10-year survival rates when compared with patients receiving only conventional treatment.
Needless to say, all cancer patients should discuss supplement intake with their doctors – both to prevent adverse interactions and to make the most of the clear benefits. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the healthy effects of dietary supplements are somehow a detriment to cancer therapies. Not today or any day.
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