But before you load up on any vitamins, minerals and supplements or other remedies, do your research! Many ingredients can clash with chemo, radiation therapy and other medications prescribed by your medical team.
The popularity of herbal remedies and supplements
Herbal remedies have been staples in the sickroom and the kitchen for centuries before big-pharma meds. Supplemental vitamins in pill form have been available for more than 50 years.
Today, there is a vast array of tablets and potions containing vitamins, minerals, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds and other compounds that come from natural sources all widely available. There are holistic specialists, homeopaths, Chinese herbalists all using natural ingredients to treat an array of ailments. According to a US government survey, approximately 38 percent of adults in the US reported using complementary and alternative medicine in the past 12 months.
Although most natural remedies are safe when not taken whilst on any other medications, what many people fail to realize is that they can interact with more traditional drug regimens prescribed by a doctor.
Be safe, not sorry
Our bodies are complex machines and everyone's genetic make-up is different. Even when we are well, what benefits one person may not benefit another and can even have a negative effect..
Similarly, cancer patients are individually prescribed a unique range of drugs depending on their specific illness and other pre-existing conditions, allergies, genetic make-up and their body’s individual needs.
Chemotherapeutic drugs are strong medications designed to target rapidly dividing cancer cells. Most patients will be prescribed a concoction of different drugs. These drugs work together in a symbiotic relationship, interacting with each other in a way that’s designed to deliver a positive end-result. The introduction of another ingredient to the mix, even a natural one that you may have taken for years, can create an imbalance. This can result in the treatment becoming less effective, having a negative reaction or side effect, or worse still, it may cause harm.
Herbal and natural remedies are a vast subject that is still not fully researched or understood, especially when it comes to mixing natural remedies with pharmaceutical medications. This is why it's so very important to seek advice from your medical team. Even then, this a largely untapped area, so don't be surprised if they simply don't know. They may advise you to abstain from taking anything whilst on cancer meds. Better safe than sorry.
If you have cancer you will no doubt have found that friends, family, support groups and even strangers are keen to offer well-intentioned advice. They may recommend supplements and remedies with reassuring words such as ‘it worked for me’' and ‘my doctor says it’s fine.’ But you are unique and so is your drug regimen – so always check with your medical team.
“Drugs or supplements that a person normally takes without any concern can be problematic for a person with cancer,” said Ila M. Saunders, PharmD, an assistant clinical professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California San Diego and an oncology clinical pharmacist at UC San Diego Health.
“Be sure to discuss everything you are taking with your health care team so they can give you the best treatment possible. Many OTC and herbal supplements can harmfully interfere with chemotherapy treatments.”
Vitamins and supplements to avoid
As we've mentioned, the subject is vast, and we're not experts in the field. But we've listed some of the better-known vitamins and ingredients that many of the reputable cancer advice websites are advising chemo patients to avoid.
General medical advice is to stop taking any antioxidants two days before each chemotherapy session and resume two days after the session ends. That will prevent any possible interaction. The following vitamins and herbs are antioxidants: vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenes, selenium, and coenzyme Q10.
Echinacea is a very popular herb, and people commonly take it to help combat flu and colds. However, there is evidence it might interfere with how certain chemotherapy drugs, such as etoposide, work. In particular, pharmacists and doctors sometimes recommend people with lymphoma not to take echinacea. (Cancer Research UK)
- Curcumin (Turmeric)
Turmeric is a spice widely used throughout Asia and a main ingredient in curries, and curcumin is the key active ingredient in turmeric. Known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and antioxidant effects, curcumin is likely safe for most people. However, it has been shown to decrease platelet function and can thin the blood. Therefore it should be avoided during chemotherapy, radiation or blood-thinning therapies. It also has some estrogenic properties and should be avoided in breast cancer patients. (Rogel Cancer Centre)
- St. John’s wort
St John’s wort is a herbal remedy used as a complementary therapy for mild to moderate depression. A study from 2002 indicated that taking St. John's wort during chemotherapy could jeopardize the effectiveness of cancer treatment. It speeds the metabolism of the chemotherapy drug Camptosar, which may compromise its tumor-fighting capabilities. (Journal of the National Cancer Institute)
- Valerian root
The herb valerian is known to be great for helping a person relax and get to sleep, but some doctors think it may prevent the body from fully processing and absorbing chemotherapeutic drugs. There is some dispute about this – but it’s important to check with your medical team if you are thinking of taking this supplement.
- Green tea extract (EGCG)
A more specific herbal supplement-drug interaction is that of green tea extract (EGCG) and Velcade (bortezomib), a chemotherapeutic agent used to treat multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. EGCG has been shown to reduce the anti-tumor effects of bortezomib. Patients on bortezomib are advised to abstain from green tea, especially any green tea extracts.
- Acai berry
Acai Berry extract is a plant compound that acts as an antioxidant that may help boost cognitive function, protect heart health, and prevent disease. However, a supplement that’s likely safe for most people, but should be avoided during chemotherapy and radiation therapy because of its antioxidant properties. (Rogel Cancer Centre)
- Fish Oil /Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These oil extracts provide anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antithrombotic effects. However, they should not be taken during antiplatelet, antihypertensive and anticoagulant therapies. Due to antioxidant properties, it should also be avoided with certain chemotherapy agents and during radiation therapy. (Rogel Cancer Centre)
Silica is well-known for helping to strengthen hair and nails, but it may also interact with steroids and pre-meds.
These are just a few and there are many others. You may need to avoid these supplements and vitamins for a period of time during your treatment but often after treatment, you will be able to take again. Our advice as always is to check with your medical team.
- Your cancer treatment center or hospital may have an integrative medicine division. That's a good place to start if you want to know what herbs, teas, or nutritional supplements can help you stay strong and cope with treatment side effects.
- Research and ask your treatment team about supplements for your specific situation. Most supplements have not been studied extensively in large clinical trials. It’s important to choose wisely and be informed.
- Ask your oncology and medical team
- Does my chemotherapy interact with any of my other medications?
- Does my chemotherapy or other meds interact with any foods or beverages?
- What herbal supplements, vitamins, or over-the-counter medications can I take safely with this medicine?
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet including lots of plant-based foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables-is most strongly and consistently associated with cancer reduction and lower recurrence rates. (Rogel Cancer Centre). But always check with your medical team about whether or not there are any foods you should avoid.
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