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Effect of Supplements on Chemotherapy

Posted Sep 06 2011 7:59pm

No one is immune to cancer. Cancer can strike individuals of any age, sex or race. Cancer can affect otherwise healthy individuals or individuals with underlying health conditions. Regardless of who you are, a diagnosis of cancer –no matter what type of cancer — is devastating. Cancer can put your normal everyday life on hold for rigorous treatment methods with harsh side effects.

chemotherapy patient Effect of Supplements on Chemotherapy

With nearly all individuals having access to the Internet, a diagnosis of cancer may mean research on how to treat cancer, alternative treatment methods and even herbal supplements to help ease the pain, side effects and even reduce the spread of cancer. While individuals believe that herbs are natural and safe, research indicates otherwise. Research conducted by a geriatric oncologist at the Northwestern University Memorial Hospital indicates otherwise. When receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer, herbal supplements may do more harm than good.

What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a common form of treatment for many cancers. It is a drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill all of the fast growing cells in your body.  Chemotherapy is used for most forms of cancer because cancer cells grow and rapidly divide more quickly than any of the other cells in your body.  This form of treatment may also be used with other treatments to more effectively treat cancer — such as surgery to remove a tumor or growth. Chemotherapy can help ensure all cancer cells are removed from the body following surgery. Chemotherapy may also be used prior to radiation therapy or surgery in an effort to shrink a tumor. For individuals with advanced cancer, chemotherapy may be used to help alleviate signs and symptoms of cancer — this is known as palliative chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy has many side effects that may occur as the result of treatments. Side effects may range from mild to severe depending on the type of chemotherapy drugs used. Typical side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Fever
  • Pain
  • Constipation
  • Mouth sores
  • Bruising easily

Most of these side effects subside after treatment for cancer is stopped. However, there are a number of side effects that can last much longer or even be permanent. These side effects can include heart problems, lung tissue damage, nerve damage and infertility. Undergoing cancer treatment also leaves you at risk for developing a secondary cancer.

The side effects you experience largely depend on the dosage and type of chemotherapy you will be receiving. Chemotherapy can come in the form of pills, topical cream — often used for certain types of skin cancers, infections, intravenous medications or may be directly poured into the effected body cavity during surgery. Intravenous medication is the most common form of chemotherapy given.

The effectiveness of chemotherapy largely depends on the type of cancer you have, how advanced the cancer is and how well your body responded to chemotherapy treatments. Your doctor will monitor your progress along the way and may opt for other forms of treatments as he/she sees fit — including surgery, radiation therapy or clinical trials.

Supplement Impacts on Cancer Treatment

June McCoy — MD, MPH — is a Northwestern University Memorial Hospital geriatric oncologist, who in August of 2011 gave a report to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. This report warms of how popular supplements could have a negative impact on cancer treatment — in particular chemotherapy treatment.

According to Dr. McCoy, herbal supplements are defined as whole plants or parts of plants that have therapeutic purposes in the field of complementary and alternative medicine. Herbal supplements can interact with chemotherapy drugs decreasing their effectiveness. Dr. McCoy indicates that some herbal supplements may have more of an effect on chemotherapy drugs than others. For instance, long term use of a garlic supplement may increase your risk of bleeding during surgery. Dr. McCoy indicates that using herbs in moderation — while cooking and preparing meals– will not have an effect on your chemotherapy treatment. However, long term use and large quantities of herbal supplements may adversely affect the outcome of your chemotherapy treatments.

Common Supplements Used By Cancer Patients

Garlic. Garlic — or Allium sativum — is a commonly used herb. Alternative and complementary medicine practitioners have advocated the use of garlic for the treatment of various health ailments — including cancer treatment. According to the University of Maryland, clinical trials have indicated that garlic has demonstrated positive outcomes in helping to alleviate a number of cancer symptoms. Others believe that garlic is an effective means of prevention when it comes to stomach and prostate cancers.

Ginger. Ginger is a powerful and multi-functional herb with a long history of providing relief for a number of health ailments. Rhizome and ginger root are used medicinally for a variety of reasons. Research conducted by Rockefeller University indicates that the pungent constituents of ginger (including zingerone, shogaols and vallinoids) can help in preventing cancer.

Rosemary. Rosemary is an evergreen shrub that has been commonly used as a food flavoring. According to Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, rosemary along with its functional ingredients of caffeic acid and rosemarinic acid contain powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help to fight off free radicals which can cause damage to the body and are believed to cause some cancers. However, more research is needed on rosemary as a cancer preventing agent.

American Ginseng. American ginseng is a perennial herb that grows throughout North America and is believed to have anti-cancer properties. Herbalist and alternative health practitioners believe that ginseng can help to inhibit the growth of cancer cells — especially in the liver. It is important to remember that American ginseng does not cure cancer or kill cancer cells.

Cumin. Cumin is a small, annual herb that is generally grown for its brown seed. Cumin has been part of a natural health diet for ages. According to Rockefeller University, studies suggest that harmful toxins help to promote the growth of cancer cells — especially in the liver. Cumin seeds have been demonstrated as effective in protecting against liver cancer because cumin is ale to help purge the body of cancer-causing toxins.

Fish Oil. Fish oil — or omega-3 fatty acids — may be helpful in the treatment of colon as well as prostate cancers. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that helps to increase the levels of cytokines in the human body. Cytokines is a type of protein, that directly attacks cancer cells, as indicated by the Harvard School of Public Health. Fish oil is also beneficial for your overall health including fighting off infections, preventing infections, lowering cholesterol levels and the risk for heart disease.

Green Tea. Green tea contains epigallocatechin-3-gallate, which is the most abundant polyphenol substance in green tea. The polyphenol substance helps to detoxify toxins and carcinogens throughout the human body, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. This can help to prevent cancer cell activity throughout the body.

Astragalus. The root of the Astragalus membranaceus — which is a Chinese medicinal herb is used in protecting the immune system of cancer patients — especially lung cancer patients. Cancer is a disease that attacks the body’s immune system. The active ingredients in astragalus are believed to help stimulate the immune system. This can help cancer patients fight off infections while undergoing cancer treatments.

Turmeric. Turmeric — also referred to as Ayurveda — is a spice prescribed as part of traditional Indian medicine. The active component of turmeric is curcimin. Curcimin is believed to have potent anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin is believed to help induce the death of cancer cells throughout the human body — especially malignant cells found in the pancreas and colon. Turmeric is also an antioxidant, which can help to remove harmful, cancer causing free radicals from the body.

Diindolylmethane. Diidolylmethane is derived from the compound indole 3-carbinal. Indole 3- carbinal is found in a number of cruciferous vegetables — including broccoli and cauliflower. Diidolylmethane — or DIM– is believed to block the growth of malignant cells throughout the body by interfering with the process of cellular division. By interfering with cellular division, it is more difficult for cancer cells to divide. DIM may also be beneficial in preventing to spread of cancer to other distant regions of the body and may also help to block the formation of blood vessels in tumors. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center indicates that DIM may also be beneficial in preventing the formation of breast an prostate cancer.

Other Herbs

Herbal remedies and supplements have a variety of different uses. Herbs each have different properties that may be beneficial in treating different aspects of human health.

Antiseptic herbal remedies include goldenseal, barberry and echinacea. These herbs can help prevent the growth of bacteria in the body, clean bacteria from the body and work to fight infections in the body. This can be beneficial for cancer patents who often have a weakened immune system due to harsh chemotherapy drug treatments.

Antibiotic herbals remedies can include echinacea, garlic, goldenseal and chaparral. Antibiotic remedies can help to destroy the growth of viruses and bacteria in the human body as well as strengthen the immune system. Weakened immune systems and increased bacterial and viral infections are very characteristic of chemotherapy patients.

Discutient herbal remedieis can include red clover tops, garlic, burdock root, sorrel and chaparral. Complementary and alternative medicine practitioners believe that these herbs can help dissolve and remove tumors and other abnormal growths from the body.

Alternative herbs are believed to help purify the blood by cleaning out the liver, kidneys, spleen and bowels. Cleaning the blood is believed to be beneficial for suffers of blood cancers including leukemia. Examples of blood cleansing herbs include yellow dock, ginseng, garlic, chickenweed, cleavers, comfrey, cayenne, goldenseal, gotu kola, licorice root, Oregon grape root, prickley ash, red clover tops, poke root, dandelion, rhubarb, chaparral, burdock root, sassafras, echinacea and barberry.

There is also a group of herbs known as cholagogues — which are believed to help open up the bile ducts and promote the flow of bile in the liver. This can be beneficial for suffers of liver cancer. These herbs include yellow dock, goldenseal, dandelion, barberry and cayenne.

What Should You Do

Dr. McCoy indicates that current research shows that 50 percent of patents undergoing chemotherapy did not tell their oncologist about alternative and complementary therapies they were also undergoing at the same time. Many believed telling their doctor about supplements was not important. Others were too embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they were using herbal or alternative medicines to treat their cancer.

Northwestern University strongly encourages oncology patients to talk to their doctor. Maintain an open line of communication with your doctor. Tell your doctor about all herbal supplements you have been taking prior to undergoing cancer treatment as well as herbs you are considering taking while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. This is for your own health. Bring the bottles or the labels of your supplements with you to your next oncology appointment for your doctor to examine.

The bottom line is that more research needs to be completed on the issue of herbal supplements and chemotherapy treatments. Dr. McCoy strongly urges that patients discontinue use of herbal supplements during chemotherapy treatment until more is known about interactions. Avoiding supplements can help prevent drug interactions.


Whether you are a cancer patient, cancer survivor, a healthy individual or an individual with other health ailments, always consult your doctor prior to beginning an herbal supplement regime. Always inform your doctor of any medications you are taking to avoid drug interactions. Your doctor will be able to recommend safe doses and herbs for your particular health.


Herbal supplements are not a Food and Drug Administration — FDA — approved means of preventing or treating cancer. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of herbal remedies when it comes to the treatment and prevention of cancer.


E Science News: Popular Herbal Supplements May Adversely Affect Chemotherapy Treatments
Mayo Clinic: Chemotherapy
University of Maryland Medical Center: Garlic
Rockefeller University: Food Choices for Reducing Cancer Risk
Pacific College of Oriental Medicine: The Cancer Fighting Benefits of Rosemary
University of Maryland Medical Center: Green Tea
Harvard School of Public Health: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centers: DIM

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