By Keith I. Block, MD
“Know thy enemy” is an ancient concept often invoked in times of war or competition. The idea is simply that one must study one’s foe in order to win. The same can be said for cancer, a disease that uses multiple methods to thrive. When an enemy uses multiple means of advancing its cause, those means must be understood and selectively targeted. Your foe, in short, must be attacked from multiple angles. The LOC integrative approach to cancer care does just that, addressing as many aspects of disease progression as possible. This is best accomplished with a variety of anticancer tools, including the use of conventional strategies such as radiation treatment. Although radiotherapy attacks the cancer with a great deal of force, it lacks specificity; meaning, it is unable to distinguish between cancer cells and normal cells. Therefore, it may also cause significant damage to the body’s normal tissue, resulting in side effects that may linger for years. However, the selective use of nutraceuticals is one of the ways you can improve your body’s protection against the potentially harmful effects of radiotherapy.
For example, taking whey protein in substantial quantities is highly recommended before and during radiation treatment. This will selectively protect the normal cells while leaving the cancer cells more vulnerable to radiation. Other supplements that could enhance protection against the potentially damaging effects of radiation include L-Glutamine, Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), Ashwagandha, and Aloe Vera (used topically as well as internally. In addition to having a wide margin of safety, preliminary research suggests that there may be numerous quality-of-life benefits for radiation treatment recipients who use these supplements.
Another way supplements can support you through radiation treatment is by sensitizing the cancer cells to the effects of the treatment. Natural agents like green tea, curcumin, and omega-3 fatty acids can help break down the cancer’s resistance, leaving malignant cells at the mercy of radiation’s lethal effects, and thus ultimately enhancing the treatment’s outcome. Other supplements that seem to enhance the effectiveness of radiotherapy include niacinamide (a certain form of the B vitamin, niacin) and vitamins D and A.
Some conventional oncologists may object to the suggestion that green tea and curcumin can be used in conjunction with radiation treatment, arguing that both of these supplements are more likely to interfere with the treatment because of their antioxidant properties. The thinking goes like this: Radiation kills cancer cells with high-reactive and unstable molecules called free radicals, and thus antioxidants (which essentially block free radicals) may potentially inhibit the “kill effect” to the cancer cells. Therefore, the use of all antioxidants is problematic and should be avoided.
Though admittedly a controversial issue and one that certainly requires additional research, it is the over-generalization (“all supplements should be avoided during treatment”) that I don’t agree with. More on this later.
Let’s first look at the two examples I mentioned above: green tea and curcumin. There is no solid evidence that either of these antioxidants interfere with the efficacy of radiation treatments. To the contrary, the studies and experiments to date indicate that these and certain other so-called antioxidant supplements may enhance the efficacy of radiation treatments by selectively protecting normal cells and, in some cases, sensitizing tumor cells to the killing effects of the radiation. Even studies of vitamin C -— widely considered to be the classic antioxidant -— have consistently suggested an enhancement of radiation’s lethal effects on cancer cells.
Dr. Kedar Prasad, a radiologist who has published numerous peer-reviewed papers on this subject, as well as a book titled Vitamins in Cancer Prevention and Treatment, said "Many studies, clinical as well as preclinical, demonstrate that supplemental antioxidants either do not interfere with radiation treatments or else work synergistically to enhance treatment outcomes." In the December 2004 issue of Integrative Cancer Therapies, Dr. Prasad addressed these concerns in a comprehensive paper titled “Multiple dietary antioxidants enhance the efficacy of standard and experimental cancer therapies and decrease their toxicity.”
Back to my earlier mention about the generalization that “all supplements” should be avoided during radiation. While you just read about a few antioxidants that may be potentially beneficial during radiation, this can’t be said of all antioxidants. There are some clinical data suggesting that vitamin E in high doses could possibly interfere with radiation’s effectiveness, and I recommend that cancer patients avoid using this supplement during radiotherapy. Most multivitamin supplements contain manganese, which could also diminish the efficacy of radiotherapy, at least in theory (though very high doses would likely be needed to have such an effect).
For more details about the use of supplements and how to integrate them into your radiation treatment protocol, I recommend consulting with an integratively-minded health care professional well versed in the use of natural products. As I advise with all components of an integrative treatment plan, supplement regimens should be individualized to each patient’s unique needs.