People love to be helpful. Mention that you have been diagnosed with cancer, and you can potentially receive hundreds of ideas from well-meaning friends and loved ones. However, how do you know if a suggested vitamin, herb or supplement is safe to combine with your prescribed cancer treatment?
You might be fortunate to have an oncologist who is well versed in using supplements, but it is not commonly the case. Nevertheless, it is always advised that you let your oncologist know what you are taking, which includes vitamins, herbs and supplements.
Supplements have the potential to work synergistically with your treatment and reduce side effects, but they also have the potential to cause harm. Here are some possible ways that supplements can interact with your cancer treatment…
Example: Say your friend recommends an energy supplement for you after chemotherapy because you feel so exhausted. You are taking Taxol which is metabolized through the CYP3A4 pathway. This supplement has licorice which inhibits the CYP3A4 pathway. The combination of the two together could make the chemotherapy more toxic.
If your white blood cell count (CBC) is below 2.5 or if your absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is below 1.0, these beneficial bacteria may go rogue without the healthy checkpoints in your immune system working properly and cause a systemic infection in your body. It doesn’t happen all the time, but there have been over 200 case reports of this happening.
Second, there is some early research coming out that taking probiotics may decrease the effectiveness of certain immunotherapies, but taking prebiotics (thought of as the food that feeds the bacteria) may be helpful. You can get prebiotics naturally in your diet by eating foods higher in fiber.
For example, melatonin is a well-known antioxidant that has been shown in meta-analyses to be beneficial for certain tumor types when combined with chemotherapy and radiation, but this is not true of every antioxidant.
If you choose to integrate supplements into your care, it is recommended you let your oncologist know what you are taking and work with a professional who is knowledgeable in drug-supplement interactions and who knows how to evaluate the evidence so you can make an informed decision.
I have worked alongside oncologists and people undergoing cancer treatment for over 13 years helping people safely navigate these decisions, and I’m here for my clients to help them evaluate supplements when a friend or loved one suggests something new.