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The Controversy Surrounding Supplements in Cancer Care

The role of dietary supplements during cancer treatment is a continuous debate among health professionals.  Cancer patients are advised to be cautious when considering dietary supplement use as vitamin and mineral supplements are not substitutes for established medicine.  Although supplemental intake of essential vitamins and minerals could seem desirable, it may not be beneficial as each person and cancer case is unique.  It is important to consult a physician before taking any dietary supplements because it is possible that potential interactions may affect the outcome of treatment [i].


The Verdict on Supplements

Even though supplements can fill the gap of nutritional needs, they can fully never replace a balanced diet with whole foods.  Eating whole foods in their natural form should not be dismissed.  In fact, it has been found that many of the benefits from fruits and vegetables are not only from the vitamin content.  Whole foods are good sources of thousands of phytochemical compounds which supplements do not always possess.  The cancer fighting properties of whole foods consist of many molecules compared to a supplement, which is typically comprised of only one molecule [ii][iii].

Patients should speak with a physician and registered dietitian before self-prescribing supplements because it is not wise to assume the safety of the supplements due to their uncertain effects and interactions with cancer treatments.  For example, folic acid and its derivatives should be avoided with methotrexate administration because it can change the efficacy of the chemotherapeutic agent.  There also is the possibility to overdose when self-prescribing supplements which can potentially lead to a harmful result [iv].  Research has shown that there are some vitamins and minerals that can complement a balanced diet. 



[i] Norman, Helen A., Rivta R. Butrum, Elaine Feldman, and Daniel Heber. “The Role of Dietary Supplements during Cancer Therapy.” The Journal of Nutrition. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences, n.d. Web. 12 June 2012. <http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/11/3794S.full>.

[ii] Béliveau, Richard, and Denis Gingras. Foods to Fight Cancer: Essential Foods to Help Prevent Cancer. New York: DK Pub., 2007. Print.

[iii] Thompson, C. “Whole Foods vs. Supplements?” LILIPOH 10 (41), 14. (2005)

[iv] Brown, Jean, Tim Byers, Kevin Thompson. “Nutrition During and After Cancer Treatment: A Guide for Informed Choices by Cancer Survivors.” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.  51:3 June 2011
Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Jessica is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. She obtained her Master's degree through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Jessica has worked in inpatient and outpatient oncology settings since 2001 in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Jessica is in charge of all operations including clinical and culinary operations ranging from menu development to evidence-based website content, relationships with registered dietitians and social workers and developing processes and protocols for intake, management and outcomes analysis of patients.


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