Not only is cancer the second
leading cause of death in the United States (after heart disease), its
insidious nature gives it a special terror. Most diseases give warning in the
form of escalating symptoms, while others strike so suddenly that there’s no
time to brood on it. Cancer follows a different, stealthier path. A person who
feels perfectly well may come back from the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of
potentially fatal cancer and plenty of time to fear what comes next.
Conventional treatments for cancer also have frightening qualities to
them: disfiguring surgery, arduous chemotherapy, and treatment with invisible
radiation. In many cases, when cancer is found early enough, conventional
treatment can lead to a permanent cure. But often the prognosis is given in
statistics—a percentage chance of survival—or, worse, in months remaining to
No wonder, then, that people turn to alternative medicine.
It would be wonderful if there were some powerful alternative approach that
could rout cancer at its root. Unfortunately, the reality is that no
alternative treatment offers a sure and simple route to recovery. Worse still,
there are plenty of unscrupulous people who will take advantage of a cancer
victim’s desperation. Even the most scrupulous providers of alternative cancer
therapy mislead in one sense: they display a conviction and enthusiasm even
though they do not know, in truth, whether their approach really works. It
simply isn’t possible for a medical practitioner to fairly judge the
effectiveness of a therapy from apparent clinical results. Only double-blind, placebo-controlled studies can do that. (For information on why this form of study is essential, see
Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?
It is possible, of course, that some alternative
therapies for cancer may truly work, even if they haven’t yet been proven.
However, we may never know which ones are real and which ones offer only false
promises. Proper studies require money and patience with the scientific
process, and proponents of alternative cancer therapies may lack one or both of
those. In addition, ethical considerations make it difficult to study an
unproven therapy for a fatal disease, when therapies that provide a chance of
cure are available. For this reason, most studies of alternative therapies for
cancer have involved adding a natural treatment to a standard cancer regimen;
alternatively, they enrolled individuals who have already failed to respond to
existing methods. These latter circumstances could potentially hide the
benefits of an effective natural therapy. If a treatment only worked in the
absence of chemotherapy, for example (as some alternative cancer therapy
proponents claim about their methods) or could only cure early cases of
cancer, these ethical obstacles would prevent researchers from finding
This article discusses the relatively small amount of
information that is known from a scientific perspective about alternative
treatments for cancer. We also discuss natural options that may reduce side
effects of standard cancer therapies, as well as possible interactions between
herbs and supplements and drugs.
Improving Survival and Quality of Life With Conventional Cancer
Numerous natural therapies have been proposed
for enhancing the cancer-fighting effects of standard therapies. However, as noted above, most
of the supporting research falls short of the necessary standard for proof: a
Based on the belief that
sharks don't get cancer, shark cartilage has been heavily marketed as a cure
for cancer. While this is a myth (sharks do get cancer), shark cartilage has,
in fact, shown some promise. Shark cartilage tends to inhibit the growth of new
blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis. Since cancerous tumors must build
new blood vessels to feed themselves, this effect might be beneficial.
Shark cartilage also inhibits substances called matrix metalloproteases
These little understood enzymes affect
the extracellular matrix, the framework of substances that lie between cells
in the body. MMPs are thought to play a role in diseases of the cornea, gums,
skin, blood vessels, and joints, as well as in cancer and illnesses that involve
excessive fibrous tissue.
A number of test tube experiments have
found that shark cartilage extracts prevent new blood vessels from forming in
chick embryos and other test systems.
findings have led to other test tube experiments, animal studies, and
preliminary human trials to investigate the possible anticancer effects of
shark cartilage. The results appeared to suggest that a particular liquid shark cartilage
extract might be useful in the treatment of various cancers, including lung,
prostate, and breast cancer.
However, the two most recent and best designed of these studies have failed to find benefit.
Support and Other Psychological Factors
Cancer treatment puts tremendous stress, both
physical and emotional, on those that undergo it. Several studies have examined
the potential benefits of social support for women with breast cancer.
According to most, but not all studies, such support improves
survival and/or enhances quality of life.
In one famous study of women
with advanced breast cancer, participants who attended a support group twice
weekly doubled their survival time as compared to study participants who did
not attend the group.
It is also commonly said that certain psychological coping styles (for example, fighting spirit versus helpless acceptance) can lead to longer life in people with cancer. However, a review of the evidence found that in fact there is little to no evidence that psychological attitude makes much of a difference.
People with cancer should not feel pressured into adopting particular coping styles to improve survival or reduce the risk of recurrence, the study's authors concluded.
One study evaluated guided imagery and
following surgery for colon cancer.
The results indicated no more than a short-term, mood-elevating benefit; those receiving the treatment did not recover more quickly.
Another study followed 32 women who had undergone breast cancer.
The women were randomized to receive just physical therapy or physical therapy plus a
program (called Yoga in Daily Life). At the end of the 3-week trial, the women in the yoga program reported less psychological distress.
In another small trial, 31 women who were still experiencing fatigue 6 months after breast cancer treatment were randomized to yoga intervention or health education.
On average, those in the yoga group reported feeling less fatigue.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a technique that trains patients to become more aware of how their thoughts, feelings, and actions combine to influence their level of stress. As a result of this awareness, patients are equipped to take positive steps to reduce their stress and better cope with any challenge they may face, including a life-threatening illness. In one study, 229 women with cancer were randomized to either mindfulness training or a waitlist for 8 weeks.
The women who participated in the training experienced an improvement in their quality of life and general well being. It is important to keep in mind that, without a control group, it is not possible to know whether the mindfulness training itself led to these favorable outcomes. A smaller study found similar results.
A 2012 review of the literature found further evidence to support the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction in people with cancer.
The review, which included 19 studies involving 1,118 patients, focused on techniques like yoga, relaxation exercises, and mindfulness meditation. The researchers reported that these interventions resulted in improved mood and quality life. Unfortunately, the reliability of these results is limited due to the lack of having a proper control group.
Another study on relaxation therapy involved 126 hospitalized patients with cancer pain. Researchers found that the patients who listened to relaxing music for 30 minutes and received pain medication had more relief than the group who only received the medication.
A systematic review of 30 trials and 1,891 cancer patients also supports the use of music therapy during cancer treatment.
Based on rating scales, music interventions (eg, participating in music therapy or listening to prerecorded music) resulted in less anxiety, improved mood, and better quality of life. The patients also had small reductions in their blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. But, because of bias in these trials, the authors recommend that more studies be done to confirm the findings.
Massage therapy has been studied for its benefits in managing the symptoms associated with cancer and its treatment. In a randomized study investigating the effects of massage on 348 advanced cancer patients suffering from moderate to severe pain, the researchers found that, compared to simple touch, massage was significantly more effective at reducing pain and improving mood immediately following treatment, but the effect was not sustained.
The authors of a review of 10 massage therapy studies were unable to draw firm conclusions about its benefits for a wide range of symptoms in patient undergoing treatment for cancer.
A subsequent trial, however, offers tentative evidence that massage therapy may be helpful for people who have bone pain from cancer that has spread. Seventy-two people were randomized to receive massage therapy or simply attention from a therapist for about 40-45 minutes for 3 days in a row.
Those in the massage group reported less pain.
is one of the more controversial proposed uses of
. An early study
tested vitamin C in 1,100 terminally ill cancer patients. One hundred patients
received 10,000 mg daily of vitamin C, while the other 1,000 patients (the control
group) did not receive vitamin C. Those taking the vitamin C survived more than
4 times longer on average (210 days) than those in the control group (50
A large (1,826 subjects) follow-up
study by the same researchers found a nearly doubled survival rate (343 days
versus 180 days) in vitamin C-treated patients whose cancers were deemed
"incurable," as compared to people not treated with vitamin C.
Benefits were also seen in a similarly designed
these results seem promising—almost miraculous—they, in fact, show next to
nothing because they lacked a placebo group. When proper double-blind, placebo-controlled studies were
performed on vitamin C for cancer, they failed to find any benefit.
Vitamin C proponents have criticized
these trials on various grounds, but the fact remains that there is as yet no reliable
positive evidence for vitamin C in cancer.
PC-SPES for Prostate Cancer
formulation of eight natural substances: seven are plants and one is a fungus.
The name is derived from the common abbreviation for prostate cancer (PC) and
the Latin word
, meaning "hope."
commercial launch in 1996, PC-SPES received increasing interest from the
general public and prostate cancer researchers. Preliminary evidence suggested
that it has significant effects on prostate cancer cells, perhaps due in part
to its estrogen-like action.
However, chemical analysis reported
in 2002 showed that PC-SPES is not truly a purely herbal product; samples of
the product dating back to 1996 have been found to contain a form of
pharmaceutical estrogen, diethylstilbestrol (DES), as well as indomethacin (an
anti-inflammatory medication in the ibuprofen family), and warfarin (a strong
Samples subsequent to 1999
contain less DES; but they also have shown less effectiveness in treating
There is little doubt that DES is active against
prostate cancer, but it presents a variety of risks, including blood clots in
the legs. The other two pharmaceutical contaminants might actually reduce the
risk of blood clots (which may be why they were covertly added), but present
various risks all on their own. For these reasons, we strongly recommend
against using PC-SPES at all.
Other Natural Treatments
Literally hundreds of
herbs and supplements have been shown in test tube studies to fight cancer
cells. However, it is a long way from a test tube to a human body, and such
findings are not at all meaningful.
In this subsection we discuss
several natural supplements that have received at least preliminary study in
humans. Keep in mind that none of the positive studies cited below reached the
level of rigor required to truly show a treatment effective. (Most lacked a control group, for example.) In contrast, several properly designed
studies failed to find benefit.
A double-blind study of 53 people undergoing cancer treatment found equivocal evidence that treatment with a special form of
(modified to contain higher levels of certain constituents) could improve general well-being of people with cancer.
Another study investigating the effects of
on survival of patients being treated for lung cancer showed no additional benefit.
One study provides indirect, but promising evidence that a mixture of the supplements
(10 mg daily) and
(50 mg daily) might help reduce the chance of breast cancer metastasis, or recurrence.
According to most but not all of the highly preliminary trials reported to date, extracts of the fungus
may enhance the effectiveness of various forms of standard cancer therapy.
Coriolus is thought to work by stimulating the immune system. The fungi products
active hexose correlated compound (AHCC)
are also advocated for this purpose.
The supplement docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a
, has shown promise for enhancing the effects of the cancer
thought to increase blood flow. An
therapy with ginkgo extract and the chemotherapy drug 5FU for the treatment of
pancreatic cancer, on the theory that ginkgo might enhance blood
flow to the tumor and thereby help 5FU penetrate better.
The results were promising.
Scant preliminary evidence suggests that
may increase effectiveness of treatment for
and that so-called
(properly know as
) may be useful in the treatment of breast cancer
and other forms of cancer.
A small unblinded study using a no-treatment
control group found indications that use of a standardized tomato extract
containing the supplement
might slow the growth of
In a small double-blind, placebo-controlled study, a combination of
, lycopene, silymarin (from
showed some potential benefit for preventing recurrence of prostate cancer after prostate cancer surgery.
Another enrolled men with rising PSA levels (a symptom of worsening cancer) and found that use of lycopene helped stabilize these levels.
Unfortunately, because this study failed to include a placebo control group, its results fail to indicate that lycopene lowers PSA levels and therefore, by inference, slows prostate cancer. However, researchers did compare lycopene alone against lycopene plus isoflavones, and, interestingly, the combined treatment seemed to be less effective, as if the isoflavones somehow antagonized the effects of lycopene.
Preliminary studies, including unblinded controlled trials, suggest
that the hormone
may enhance the effectiveness of
standard therapy for
breast cancer, prostate cancer, brain glioblastomas,
non-small-cell lung cancer, and other forms of cancer.
However, no double-blind studies have been reported. Melatonin may also help decrease cancer
chemotherapy side effects (
(Iscador) taken by injection has been evaluated as a cancer
treatment in a number of studies, including double-blind, placebo-controlled
In general, though, these studies failed to attain adequate levels of scientific rigor or clinical relevance. The best studies found benefit; more rigorous studies found no improvement in survival
time, survival rate, or quality of life.
A review of 41 studies found mistletoe use was associated with improved survival in cancer patients. But, an analysis of these studies limited to randomized trials showed no effect.
The safety of mistletoe is not established, and one report
suggests that it can damage the liver.
An uncontrolled study found that use of a special
(spleen peptide preparation) somewhat reduced side effects of chemotherapy for head and neck cancer.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled
proved helpful for
enhancing survival in head
and neck cancer
or lung cancer.
decrease bone pain and increase muscle strength in
men with prostate
Traditional Chinese medicine has been evaluated in a number of studies in patients being treated for cancer. In one study,
has shown a bit of promise for reducing the sense of fatigue that commonly occurs in cancer.
Acupuncture has also been studied as a treatment for cancer-related pain. Researchers reviewed 3 small, randomized trials involving 204 people with cancer-related pain.
The authors concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to say that acupuncture is helpful in relieving this type of pain. More high-quality studies are needed.
(two 90-minute sessions weekly) was associated with improved quality of life, fatigue and mood disturbance in another study.
A review of 15 mostly poor quality trials involving 862 patients receiving chemotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer, suggested that
Chinese herbal medicine
might improve quality of life.
But, a 2010 review of 7 studies found insufficient evidence to conclude whether or not
improves quality of life or psychological or physical outcomes in patients with breast cancer.
Therapeutic Touch (TT) is a type of treatment that involves the "energy field" that purported surrounds and infuses the body. A TT practitioner is said to heal or otherwise correct a patient's discomposed energy field, which is thought to treat illness and lead to overall wellness. A study involving 76 breast cancer survivors found no difference between real TT and sham touch (without healing intent) in reducing cancer-related fatigue.
However, both were more effective than no touch at all.
One study tested whether a diet very high in vegetables, fruit, and fiber, and low in fat could enhance survival or reduce recurrence rates in women diagnosed with breast cancer; unfortunately, no benefits were seen.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a therapeutic technique in which small voltages of electricity are transmitted across the skin via electrodes placed at specific points on the body's surface. In a review of 3 randomized trials involving 88 people, researchers did not find evidence to support the use of TENS as a treatment for cancer pain.
Effects of Chemotherapy
Various herbs and supplements
have shown promise for reducing the side effects of chemotherapy.
Many chemotherapy drugs work by interfering with rapidly dividing cells.
Unfortunately, cancer cells aren’t the only cells that divide rapidly. The
intestinal tract constantly rebuilds its lining, and chemotherapy may interfere
with that process. The result: gastrointestinal side effects, such as mouth
sores, nausea, loss of appetite, and diarrhea.
Several herbs and
supplements have shown promise for alleviating these conditions, although none
have been definitively proven effective.
Diarrhea and Other Gastrointestinal Side Effects
A well-designed double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 70 participants
undergoing cancer chemotherapy with the drug
potential benefits of the supplement
reducing chemotherapy-induced diarrhea.
results suggest that use of glutamine at a dose of 18 g daily may
reduce intestinal damage and diminish symptoms of diarrhea. These promising
findings indicate a need for larger trials to accurately determine the extent
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 150 people
undergoing chemotherapy with
found some evidence that a
(friendly bacteria) called
can reduce the diarrhea that is a common complication of this treatment.
Another, more unusual probiotic, a special, nonpathogenic form of
, has also shown promise.
Highly preliminary evidence hints that the supplement
active hexose correlated compound
have might help reduce chemotherapy-induced gastrointestinal side effects.
In one study, use of the supplement
failed to help maintain muscle mass in people undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer.
In an uncontrolled study, use
of the herb
mouthwash appeared to help prevent
mouth sores in people undergoing various forms of chemotherapy.
However, uncontrolled studies prove nothing. A
rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 164 people did
find chamomile mouthwash effective for treating the mouth
sores caused by the chemotherapy drug
have also shown some promise for preventing mouth sores (caused by various
forms of cancer treatment) in preliminary studies, but rigorous studies of
adequate size have not been reported.
A very preliminary trial hints that
reduce nausea caused by the chemotherapy drug
However, another study failed to find ginger helpful for nausea in people using the drug
And a in a third trial, ginger did not add to the effectiveness of standard medications to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
has shown some benefit for reducing nausea caused by chemotherapy.
Psychological methods such as
have also shown promise for nausea.
One study found that use of aromatherapy massage (combined
and use of fragrant
) reduced symptoms of anxiety and/or depression in people undergoing treatment for cancer; at least for the short-term.
However, the authors of a review of 10 massage therapy studies were unable to draw firm conclusions about its benefits for a wide range of symptoms in patient undergoing treatment for cancer.
for reducing nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy have reached contradictory results, though on balance, there may be some benefit.
A double-blind study performed in Hong Kong evaluated the potential benefits in cancer chemotherapy of personalized herbal formulas designed according to the principles of
Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine
In this study, 120 people undergoing chemotherapy for early-stage breast or colon cancer were given either a personalized formula or placebo. Researchers evaluated numerous possible effects of the treatment, but found benefits in only one: reduction of nausea. Note that even this single result is less meaningful than it may seem; it is statistically questionable to use a multiplicity of outcome measures.
Other Side Effects of Chemotherapy
In highly preliminary trials, the supplement
has shown promise for reducing
various side effects of the drug
An animal study suggests that a
called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) might decrease side effects
caused by the drug
shown some promise for reducing the side effects of various chemotherapy
In preliminary studies, various antioxidants have shown promise for preventing heart damage and other side effects of the drug doxorubicin. See the
article for details.
One animal study hints
that the herb
might protect against kidney damage caused by the drug
In addition, there is some evidence that acetyl-L-carnitine, glutamine, and vitamin E supplementation might each reduce peripheral neuropathy symptoms in patients (painful damage to nerves outside the spinal column) receiving cisplatin or paclitaxel.
berry has been advocated for reducing side effects of chemotherapy, but the evidence that it works is far too preliminary to be relied upon at all.
A review of 33 studies supports the view that
in general (with the exception of vitamin A) may reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy. However, due to inconsistencies among these studies, it is unclear which antioxidants are best for this purpose.
may help to improve fatigue in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
In a small randomized trial of 43 breast cancer patients, 6 weeks of acupuncture twice weekly reduced joint pain attributed to aromatase-inhibitor therapy.
also has information about this topic.
Effects of Radiation Therapy
Although the symptoms are
generally less intense than with chemotherapy, radiation therapy can also cause
problems, such as diarrhea, skin damage, and fatigue. Certain supplements and alternative therapies may
Two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies enrolling a total of almost 700 people undergoing radiation therapy found that use of
significantly improved diarrhea.
However, of 85 women receiving pelvic radiation for cervical or uterine cancer, those who consumed a probiotic enriched yogurt had no less diarrhea than those who took a placebo drink.
An unblinded controlled study of 75 people receiving radiation therapy
for various forms of cancer found some evidence that soap enriched with
gel can help protect the skin from radiation
However, researchers had to use
questionable statistical methods to find evidence of benefit, making the
results less than fully reliable. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study that
evaluated the effects of aloe gel in 225 women undergoing radiation therapy for
breast cancer failed to find benefit.
Another study failed to find aloe vera beneficial for reducing side effects of radiation therapy for head and neck cancer.
One study compared cream made from
flowers with the standard treatment trolamine for protecting the skin during radiation therapy and found calendula more effective.
However, it is not known whether trolamine is beneficial, neutral, or harmful when used for this purpose, and for this reason it's not possible to draw firm conclusions from the study.
Cream made from chamomile has also been tried for protecting the skin from damage caused by radiation therapy, but the one controlled trial on the subject failed to find benefit.
One study failed to find
oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs)
from grape seed helpful for reducing the local side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer.
Radiation treatment in the vicinity of
the mouth may cause alterations in taste sensation. In a small double-blind,
placebo controlled trial, use of
supplements tended to counter this symptom.
However, a larger follow-up study failed to find this benefit.
One small study did find found that use of zinc could modestly decrease inflammation of the mucous membranes and skin caused by radiation therapy.
Radiation treatment to the pelvic area
can cause nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. A double-blind, placebo-controlled
trial with 56 participants evaluated the potential effectiveness of
for reducing these symptoms.
Unfortunately, no benefits were seen.
Another study failed to find proteolytic enzymes helpful for reducing mouth sores or other symptoms that occur during radiation therapy of head/neck cancers.
In a double-blind study of 40 people undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer, use of a standard multivitamin preparation failed to reduce fatigue as compared to placebo.
(In fact, people in the placebo group may have done somewhat
than those given the vitamin.)
A large study failed to find
more helpful than placebo for reducing psychological distress among people undergoing radiation therapy for cancer.
And a small randomized trial found that effleurage
, a common massage technique, had no significant effect on anxiety, depression, or quality of life among 22 women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer.
As with chemotherapy,
berry has been advocated for reducing side effects of radiation therapy, but again reliable evidence is lacking.
The use of
during radiation therapy is controversial. One study found that use of antioxidants decreased radiation therapy side effects, but may have decreased radiation therapy effectiveness as well.
In a small trial, patients who wore acupressure bands for up to 7 days following radiation therapy reported less nausea than patients who received only usual care.
A systematic review of 3 randomized trials involving 123 people with head and neck cancer found that real acupuncture was more effective than sham (fake) acupuncture in reducing the risk of dry mouth (xerostomia) due to radiation therapy.
A subsequent study also supports the use of acupuncture in reducing dry mouth in such patients. But, unlike the previous trial, this one compared acupuncture to standard care (rather than to sham treatment).
This topic is also discussed in the
, in the radiation therapy support chapter.
Treating Side Effects Caused by
Breast Cancer Surgery
Many women experience lymphedema
(chronic arm swelling caused by damage to the lymph drainage system) following
breast cancer surgery. Natural treatments for this condition include
more information see the
Another small randomized trial of 70 patients found that acupuncture may decrease dry mouth and pain after removing lymph nodes in the neck for cancer treatment.
Flashes After Mastectomy
Women who have had breast cancer
surgery frequently experience annoying hot flashes. Estrogen treatment is not
an option, as it might increase the risk of cancer recurrence.
a 2-month, double-blind trial, 85 women who had undergone treatment for breast
cancer received either the herb
The results were not
encouraging: black cohosh did not reduce overall hot-flash symptoms.
Four double-blind, placebo-controlled trials evaluated
treatment for hot flashes, but again failed to find benefit.
A trial involving 72 breast cancer patients failed to find real
significantly more effective than sham acupuncture for treatment of hot flashes.
And, a 2008 review of all existing studies on the subject concluded that the evidence does not support a beneficial effect for acupuncture in breast cancer patients suffering from hot flashes.
In a small randomized trial, hypnosis appeared to reduce hot flashes as well as improve mood and sleep among 51 breast cancer survivors compared no hypnosis.
Other Side Effects Caused by
Breast Cancer Surgery
After a mastectomy, some women develop wound complications. Ninety women who had undergone a mastectomy were randomized to receive 1 of 3 treatments: routine wound care, the
Chinese herbSalvia miltiorrhiza
(given intravenously for 3 days), or another Chinese herb called anisodamine (also given intravenously for 3 days).
The women who received the herbal treatments had fewer wound complications compared to those in the routine wound care group. But, the women who took anisodamine had more adverse effects related to the treatment, like painful urination.
Herbs and Supplements to Use Only With Caution
Herb and Supplement Interactions With Specific Cancer Drugs
Various herbs and supplements may interact adversely with drugs used to treat cancer. We strongly recommend that individuals under treatment for cancer do not use any herb or supplement except under physician’s supervision. A few important categories of potential interactions are described here. Follow the links to the indicated article for detailed information.
St. John’s wort
interacts with many medications, including various chemotherapy drugs.
causes the body to become deficient in
. For this reason, people who take methotrexate for
, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, or
are sometimes advised to take folate supplements. Studies indicate that in those conditions, use of folate does not impair the action of the drug. However, no studies have as yet established that folate supplements are safe to take with methotrexate when it is used to treat cancer.
tangeretin may interact with the breast cancer drug
One highly preliminary study found that black cohosh might interfere with the action of the chemotherapy drug
The Antioxidant Controversy
Heated disagreement exists regarding whether it is safe or appropriate to combine antioxidants (eg,
) with standard chemotherapy drugs. The reasoning behind the concern is that some chemotherapy drugs may work in part by creating free radicals that destroy cancer cells, and antioxidants might interfere with this beneficial effect.
There is little reliable evidence, though, that antioxidants interfere with chemotherapy drugs. Additionally, there is growing evidence that antioxidants may not cause harm and, in certain cases, may offer benefits.
However, the effects are likely to vary with the specific situation (for example, type and stage of cancer, and kind of treatment used), and there is far more research to be done.
Therefore, we strongly recommend that you do not take antioxidants (or any other supplements) while undergoing cancer chemotherapy except on the advice of a physician.
A similar situation exists regarding radiation therapy. One study found that use of antioxidants decreased radiation therapy side effects, but may have decreased radiation therapy effectiveness as well.
Another study found some evidence that people who both smoked cigarettes and used antioxidants while undergoing radiation therapy for head and neck cancer had increased risk of treatment failure as compared to smokers who did not use antioxidants.
After reviewing much of the research on this controversial topic, one group of researchers published an article in the
Journal of National Cancer Institute
, in which they conclude that antioxidants should be discouraged during either chemotherapy or radiation therapy because of their potential to reduce the effectiveness of these treatments.
Herbs That May Increase Breast Cancer Recurrence Risk
Women who have
had breast cancer are at high risk for a recurrence. As noted above, use of
estrogen promotes the development of breast cancer, and for this reason it is
off limits. However, certain natural products may present a similar risk.
Numerous herbs and supplements have estrogen-like properties, including the
Contrary to popular
is probably not estrogenic.
supplements, such as
raise estrogen levels in the body. Finally, although the herbs
do not appear to act in an estrogen-like manner,
they may nonetheless stimulate growth of breast cancer cells.
Women who have undergone breast cancer surgery
should use these herbs and supplements only under the advice of a physician.
The weak estrogen,
sometimes advocated by alternative practitioners as a safer choice than
standard estrogen. However, test tube studies suggest that estriol is just as
likely to cause breast cancer as any other form of estrogen.