Breast cancer and antioxidants

June 8, 2009 3:24:06 PM PDT
Many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer pay close attention to their health habits, trying to do all they can to boost their immune systems. But now, a new reports raises questions about whether a health habit many practice, taking antioxidants, could actually be dangerous. Breast cancer patient Susan Von Poznak was particularly conscious about doing all she could to stay healthy. But she wondered about the antioxidant supplements she had been taking before her diagnosis.

"Before I went to radiation, I went and spoke to my doctors about that. Everyone says use anti-oxidants, everyone says do the omegas."

But Susan was surprised when her doctor advised her to stop many of her supplements. Dr. Kathi Joseph is the head of the Women at Risk program at Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia.

"What we usually tell patients is to hold off on the their use of antioxidants until they've completed their breast cancer treatment," said Dr. Joseph.

But many women who are currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer are not holding off and are still taking supplements.

Dr. Judith Jacobson and her colleagues at Columbia have just researched the use of anti-oxidants among breast cancer patients.

"Our findings were that a lot of women are taking antioxidants during the various phases of their treatment, " said Dr. Jacobson.

Their study of nearly 700 breast cancer patients currently in treatment showed six out of 10 were using antioxidant supplements along with their treatments and most of them were taking them at high doses. The antioxidants supplements included vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and selenium.

The effects these pills have on women undergoing cancer treatment are poorly understood and the research has been mixed. For that reason, taking extra vitamin C, E, selenium or beta carotene is discouraged.

"So because of this mixed data this is out there in the literature we like to err on the side of caution and tell patients to hold off," said Dr. Joseph.

"When she told me no, I was very surprised because I would have been using them in mega doses," said Susan.

The researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia published their research in the journal, "Cancer". Doctors say cancer patients should always tell their physicians what over the counter supplements they are taking. For breast cancer, high doses of antioxidants are probably not a good idea.

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