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Combining Radiation & Antioxidants

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Author: Dr. Walter Lemmo, ND, Vancouver, BC
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Combining Radiation & Antioxidants: "Caution in Smokers Only!"

In 2005, a Canadian study revealed that in patients with Head & Neck cancers who were taking the synthetic Vitamins E & beta-carotene (no others) together with radiation treatment, it appeared to improve the side effects of treatment but yet were also linked with a higher local recurrence risk. In 2006, the same researchers also revealed that vitamin E was linked with higher mortality rates in this group of cancer patients in general. When oncologists read these two papers, fear set in and the general recommendation to avoid taking any type of antioxidant nutrient(s) together with radiation became a normal statement by most cancer agency groups. Prior to this study, taking antioxidants combined together with radiation was not a big issue.

What was not highlighted in all the press was that by the end of the 8-year study in the patients with Head & Neck cancer (i.e. the long-term effects), there were fewer recurrences in the vitamin group compared to those taking none. Now statistically, there was no difference in survival as by their Kaplan-Meier curves. If you seem confused, then here’s a very important missing piece of the puzzle.

In a paper to be published in April 2008, the very same Canadian researchers, again, who started the “scare” in the first place noticed a very interesting observation after re-analyzing their data. When looking at the same group of patients with Head & Neck cancer, the researchers found that in those people who were cigarette smokers and who continued to smoke throughout radiation treatment appeared to be the group negatively affected by taking the synthetic antioxidants! They did not do well at all. If a smoker stopped smoking during radiation treatment, then they were OK. Non-smokers were OK with taking antioxidants together with radiation. This study should have received a lot of media attention but, unfortunately, it did not. 

Dr Lemmo's Comments:

So welcome to the world of research! Basically, when properly analyzing and filtering the data behind the potential concerns of taking synthetic Vitamin E & beta-carotene together with radiation, and in particular in people with Head & Neck cancer, some caution should be advised in those who smoke only. This information may apply to others who smoke as well (i.e. lung cancer). Everyone else is OK. The general bulk of the research out there does not show concern but rather potential benefit and so I hope this article helps to clarify some of the confusion. There is also some question as to whether the forms of vitamins used (i.e. the common synthetic versus the more natural) may also be an important variable.

For example, published research has shown that the "succinate" form of Vitamin E has shown to have better anticancer effects than the standard over-the-counter brand used. There are some interesting natural health products, which may have promise when combined together with radiation as well (i.e. glutamine, melatonin, niacinamide, mistletoe, etc.). Moreover, for those who do not want to take pills or natural health care products of any kind, the use of high temperature heating known as “Hyperthermia” could be explored in interested patients as a means to enhance the benefits of radiation treatment.


Moss R. Do antioxidants interfere with radiation treatment for cancer? A Cancer Decisions Report. February 2008

Bairati et al. Interaction between antioxidant vitamin supplementation and cigarette smoking during radiation therapy in relation to long-term effects on recurrence and mortality: a randomized trial among head and neck cancer patients. Int J. Cancer 2008: 122:7:1679-83.
For more information about Dr. Walter Lemmo ND visit
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