Study reveals that almost 30% of cancer patients aren’t being honest with their docs
By Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
Just as advertisements for pharmaceuticals seem to be everywhere nowadays (don’t get me started on those ads), we also see advertisements for dietary supplements, essential oils, and vitamins galore. At first glance, we may think that these are excellent choices for us – after all – they purport to be “all natural” and “non-toxic”, all while improving our health.
How could these be bad? Well, some may be completely harmless, some may have a benefit, but as cancer patients, we must be extra vigilant in disclosing EVERYTHING that we take or use to our docs. What’s the big deal, you ask? There is plenty to discuss. Let’s take some time today to talk about an industry that, in 2016, was worth over $132 billion.
When you’re healthy…
Before we get into talking about supplement use in cancer patients, let’s examine how they may or may not be beneficial in healthy people. For the most part, people that aren’t suffering from a disease process obtain the nutrients that are needed for optimal health from the food and (healthy) beverages that we consume. Taking massive high dose vitamin B? Sorry, but unless you are experiencing a dietary deficit for some reason, all that excess B is going to go straight down the toilet. Literally. You see, our bodies eliminate overages in most vitamins via the urine. This was communicated to me by a physiology professor many years ago. He told us, “If you’re healthy, you really don’t need anything more that a good multi-vitamin, and even that may be more than you need. But massive doses of vitamins, it tends to make nothing more than really expensive pee.”
When you’re sick…
Am I saying that vitamin C doesn’t help with a cold or any number of other maladies? Absolutely not. That’s one of those cases where the properties of this vitamin (and/or others) may be needed by our bodies. Illness is a sign that the beautiful balance that our bodies normally create (known as homeostasis) has been thrown off by something. Sometimes it’s a virus or bacteria, sometimes it is a dietary deficiency, sometimes it is cancer. Here’s the deal though – while vitamin C hasn’t been shown to harm you when you have a cold of the flu – it hasn’t scientifically been shown to help either. You can read up a bit more on vitamin C from WebMD.
I was talking about this topic with my mom earlier today. Her physician has her on vitamin D plus calcium to fight osteoporosis. Why? Well, after menopause, and some scientists say even in our thirties, we ladies stop storing calcium the way our younger counterparts do. If our bodies need calcium – they will leach it from our bones, leading to osteopenia and osteoporosis. By supplementing vitamin D and calcium, my mom’s doctor is shoring up the supply in her blood stream. This is one of those cases where supplementation is 100% necessary.
In cancer patients
Just like ladies (and yes, some men too!) need calcium to stave off osteoporosis as they age, cancer patients may need supplements to aid their bodies. Some chemotherapeutic drugs have been shown to damage the bone marrow, leading to anemia. In some of these cases, supplementation with slow release iron can be beneficial. But, care must be taken even with something as simple as iron. Too much iron can lead to terrible constipation.
Here is something truly troubling. A recent study by UT Southwestern has shown that 29% of cancer patients are supplementing their traditional treatments and NOT telling their physicians. While this may not sound like that big of a deal on the first read, stop and think about it for a minute. The treatments prescribed by your physician are delicately balanced. While you may think you aren’t hurting anything by adding a supplement or herbal treatment, what you need to realize is that these supplements can have additive or deleterious effects on treatments.
Let’s go back to vitamin C. Many people take it for its antioxidant properties, believing that it protects cells from cancer. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1985 showed no difference in survival times for patients with advanced colorectal cancer. What is important to note is this was a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. This study design is the gold standard in clinical research as it allows investigators to look at this without bias.
A more recent study, in 2007, published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science showed that patients reported increased scores on quality of life measures when taking high dose vitamin C. The difference here is this was an open-label study, where all patients received vitamin C. In a design like this, we cannot account for placebo effect.
So, how can vitamin C be bad? Well, the American Institute of Cancer Research warns that even simple vitamin C could be harmful in that it could possibly protect cancer cells just as it protects healthy cells. Think about that – its like giving your cancer armor to protect against the chemo.
One more word of warning. Biotin, or vitamin B7, has long been a part of multivitamins. Some physicians even suggest its use in patients with various diseases including MS. Many people take biotin to promote healthy hair, skin, and nail growth. Sounds great, right? Well, many laboratory tests use biotin in their analysis, so a biotin supplement showing up in the blood can produce results in vastly higher or lower levels than are actually there. When a doctor reads these results, not knowing that they have been falsely elevated or depressed, he or she may prescribe something that actually isn’t called for.
The number of vitamins, supplements, herbal treatments, and other alternative medical practices seem to grow on a daily basis. It is VITAL for cancer patients to discuss any alternative treatment and all supplements with their cancer care team before starting. I am a huge proponent of treating the entire patient – mind and body – and realize that may take on non-traditional routes; however, communication is key here so that two treatments aimed at health don’t combine to produce harm.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!