Supplements improve breast cancer survival

If you’ve been reading Insiders’ Cures for a while, it’ll come as no surprise how little mainstream doctors know about nutrition research or supplements.

Most doctors say they just don’t believe in it, aren’t interested, and/ or don’t have time. But even doctors who do say they’re interested in and knowledgeable about nutrition often get it wrong. In fact, I just participated in an exclusive survey of doctors who do include nutrition in their practices.

And judging by their answers to supplement questions, it really makes me wonder about all these “johnny- come-lately” nutrition docs and “natural-know-it-alls.”

Take the standard advice for cancer patients and survivors. The mantra has always been that vitamin and mineral supplements—especially antioxidants—could interfere with chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Of course, this wasn’t based on anything resembling science.

Those of us who know a thing or two about nutrients have always known this theory doesn’t hold water. In fact, I laid that red herring to rest when I ran the Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia nearly 10 years ago.

My team and I proved to several different hospital committees that there was no evidence for harm, but evidence for benefit, in offering intravenous vitamin C to cancer patients (See “Vitamin breakthrough for cancer targets tumors at the sources” in the August 2013 edition of Insiders’ Cures). The evidence is summarized in my book, Complementary and Integrative Therapies in Cancer Care & Prevention (New York: Springer Publishers, 2007).

Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream doctors still haven’t gotten the memo. Maybe a powerful new study on the subject will change that.

The real effects of vitamins on cancer

One of the reasons this new study is so significant is that it used a very large sample size—12,019 women with breast cancer. Another reason is that it looked at women in the United States and women in China. We often include

China in cancer studies because of the significant differences in diet and nutrient intakes between the United States and China. These allow us to observe a greater range of different vitamin intake levels.

The researchers in this study wanted to find out once and for all what effects supplements have on breast cancer recurrence and survival. They looked at vitamins A, B, C, D, E and multivitamins, taking into account supplement use from one to five years after breast cancer was diagnosed.

Their findings were right in line with what I knew years ago: Higher vitamin C intake is associated with a decreased risk of cancer death. They also found that higher intake of vitamins D and E each are associated with a decreased risk of cancer recurrence.

Lumped together, antioxidants were associated with a 16 percent reduction in cancer deaths.

So not only is the use of vitamins not associated with increased cancer deaths or recurrence, it actually is linked to decreased death and recurrence. This study effectively confirms that myths about “dangers” of dietary supplements for cancer patients have no basis.

What’s more, these supplements probably helped protect patients against the toxic side effects of standard cancer treatments.

The researchers note that sorting out the effects of individual vitamins on cancer survival and recurrence is a larger question. But given the poor quality of many supplements, especially most common multivitamins, it is encouraging that this study still found significant beneficial effects.

That would lead us to believe that using high-quality supplements, with the right ingredients, at the right doses, in the right combinations (which are often missing from multi-million dollar cancer research studies) will provide even more protection and benefit to women with cancer.

The bottom line is that cancer survivors should forget everything they’ve heard about avoiding supplements during recovery. Vitamin supplements not only aren’t dangerous, they actually may increase survival rates, decrease recurrence rates, and stem the side effects of traditional treatments.

That’s good news for the more than 2.8 million women in the United States with a history of breast cancer who want to take charge of their health.1 Put a pink ribbon on that one, and wrap it up in red and green for Christmas.


1. The American Cancer Society. What are the key statistics about breast cancer? Breast Cancer. Accessed October 18, 2013.