A cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling like your life is spinning out of control. Making decisions on the food you eat and the supplements you take represents an opportunity to regain a measure of control.
It’s estimated that more than half of cancer patients use some form of complementary or alternative medicine supplement as part of their treatment plan. Some of these supplements might be recommended by your doctor or dietitian. Others may be suggested by family, friends, Internet forums or websites.
Vitamins, minerals, herbs or products made from plants can offer a needed boost – or sometimes be a danger to your health.
A Role for Supplements
Along with assorted vitamins and minerals, supplements include things made from animal parts, algae, seafood, yeasts and fungus, along with powdered amino acids, enzymes and energy bars.
If you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, you should talk with a dietitian who specializes in cancer care to help you devise a game plan. This plan may change as your treatment progresses and will likely be unique to your own needs.
For example, an overweight patient preparing for an upcoming surgery may need supplements to boost protein without adding weight. Supplements also can be used for patients at risk for malnutrition – because of difficulties chewing or swallowing, or issues with their digestive systems. Supplements can provide important calories and nutrients when you aren’t getting enough through diet alone.
Choosing the Right Supplements
When delving into the world of supplements, you will quickly be awash in claims and testimonials pointing you to various products. You’ll be told about the advantages of megadosing (taking large amounts of a particular substance), natural over manmade and treatments that have been around for thousands of years.
Your challenge is figuring out what to listen to and what to ignore. Here are some tips to help you make the right choice:
- Investigate before you buy: Do your research in libraries and online, with an emphasis on reliable third-party researchers and government agencies.
- Ask your doctor or dietitian: They may not know specifics about every product on the market, but they may be able to steer you away from a dangerous mistake.
- Avoid the hype: Claims about “miracle cures” and “new discoveries” are often fraudulent.
- Skip the mixtures: Avoid products with a wide mix of supplements. With more ingredients comes a higher risk of problems.
- One step at a time: Start with a single supplement before adding another. This will make it easier to pinpoint the culprit if you experience negative side effects.
- Follow the label: Don’t exceed recommended dosages. Overdoses can be deadly.
- No FDA approval: Supplement makers don’t need FDA approval to market their products. The agency will look at false or misleading claims, but only after the product is on the market.
What To Avoid
It’s not unusual for a patient to want to try a supplement not approved by the FDA for its cancer-fighting properties. In general, your medical team isn’t likely to object.
But there are instances where supplements have the potential to hurt you. One specific example of this is with patients undergoing radiation treatment.
It’s not uncommon for cancer patients to take super high doses of antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E. These antioxidants have the potential to protect your body’s cells. The problem is that they don’t know the difference between good cells and bad cells. So, heavy doses of antioxidants may actually work against your radiation treatment.
Other things to consider:
- Supplements can cause skin sensitivity or other reactions during radiation therapy.
- During chemotherapy treatments, you may be at higher risk for drug interactions while taking dietary supplements. Antioxidants also could interfere with treatments.
- For patients who need surgery, supplements could react with medicines used during and after surgery. They also can increase the increase of bleeding and infection.
If you want to take supplements during your cancer treatment, be sure to discuss your plans with your team. They can help you figure out what is and isn’t safe for you.
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