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Natural Support During Chemotherapy

By Dr. Michael Murray, N.D.

For many people the very thought of chemotherapy evokes frightening images of debilitating nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and weakness. However, newer medications have made most chemotherapy regimens much better tolerated than in the past. Nonetheless, chemotherapy can produce a wide range of undesirable side effects. Which side effects will occur has much to do with the type of chemotherapy, the dosage and timing of the treatments, the general health of the patient and the history of prior chemotherapy.

One of the problems with chemotherapy is that it is active against all dividing cells whether cancerous or not. This means that cells lining the intestines, in the bone marrow and in the hair follicles, all of which are also continuously dividing, will also be damaged by chemotherapy.

Fortunately, there are natural products that can be used to protect against the damaging effects of chemotherapy while simultaneously increasing the effectiveness of the chemotherapy. The natural measures that I am recommending are definitely worth incorporating into your cancer treatment plan and may mean the difference of life or death.

Along with some basic dietary guidelines, there are five key supplements that can be used to support any form of chemotherapy or radiation.

In addition, it is important to take coenzyme Q10 if you are taking doxorubicin (Adriamycin) or any other chemotherapy agent known to damage the heart. What are the general dietary guidelines to follow? Because of the problem of nausea and vomiting sometimes caused by cancer itself, as well as many chemotherapy agents and/or radiation therapies, many cancer patients develop anorexia – the loss of appetite or desire to eat. This situation is not good at all because it can lead to a condition known as cancer “cachexia” – a wasting syndrome characterized by weakness and a noticeable continuous loss of weight, fat, and muscle. It is estimated that roughly 40 percent of cancer patients actually die of malnutrition rather than their disease itself. The importance of high-quality nutrition in the battle against cancer cannot be overstated.

Cancer patients who have higher nutritional status are better able to tolerate cancer therapy and its side effects. A person on chemotherapy with poor nutritional status can lead to progressive wasting, weakness, and lower resistance to infection that can sometimes end fatally.

The following dietary suggestions can help improve nutritional status in cancer patients:

  1. Eat small frequent meals (every 1-2 hours).

  2. Drink a high-protein smoothie containing 20 to 30 grams of whey protein twice daily.

  3. Get a juice machine and drink 18 to 24 ounces of fresh fruit or vegetable juice daily.

  4. Use extra seasonings, spices, and flavorings, but avoid flavorings that are very sweet or very bitter. A higher sensitivity to the taste of food may cause them to taste flavorless or boring.

  5. Eat soft or moist foods while avoiding hard, dry foods.

  6. Take small bites and chew completely.

  7. Drink at least 48 ounces of water daily in addition to the 18 to 24 ounces of fresh fruit or vegetable juice.

What do you mean by regular consumption of “greens” drinks?

Greens drinks is the term that we are using to describe green tea and a number of commercially available products containing dehydrated barley grass, wheatgrass, or algae sources such as chlorella or spirulina that are then “rehydrated” by mixing with water. The product that I recommend, Enriching Greens®, is packed full of phytochemicals, especially helpful in fighting against cancer. Greens drinks should not be used in patients taking coumadin (Warfarin) – a drug that blocks blood clotting by interfering with the actions of vitamin K. Since greens drinks can be a good source of vitamin K, it is important for people taking coumadin to avoid these drinks.

Should antioxidants be avoided during chemotherapy treatments?

One of the most controversial recommendations to support chemotherapy (as well as radiation therapy) is the recommendation to use antioxidant nutrients during the active phase of the treatment. While there is little concern with using antioxidant nutrients after the completion of a course of chemotherapy or radiation treatment the concern that many oncologists have is that antioxidant nutrients will interfere with the effectiveness of conventional therapies. Is this fear valid?

According to many experts, the answer is no.1,2 Dr. Kedar Prasad and his colleagues at the Center for Vitamins and Cancer Research at the University of Colorado Health Science Center’s Department of Radiology in Denver are among the most knowledgeable experts in this field. Dr. Prasad has stated that the concerns over the use of high dosage antioxidants during chemotherapy and radiation “are not valid.” Dr. Prasad feels that “based on results of our studies and others, we have proposed a hypothesis that supplementation with high doses of multiple antioxidant vitamins, together with diet modification and lifestyle changes, may improve the efficacy of standard and experimental cancer therapies by reducing their toxicity on normal cells and by enhancing their growth-inhibitory effects on cancer cells.”

The bottom line is that in addition to countless animal studies, the majority of human studies have shown patients treated with antioxidants during chemotherapy and/or radiation tolerate standard treatment better, have a better quality of life, and most importantly, live longer than patients receiving no supplements. For example, the conclusion in a study in patients with small-cell lung cancer using combination chemotherapy of cyclophosphamide, Adriamycin (doxorubicin), and vincristine with radiation and a combination of antioxidants, vitamins, trace elements, and fatty acids was that the nutritional support significantly prolonged the survival time of patients.

But, my oncologist told me scientific evidence shows that antioxidants interfere with chemotherapy, what should I do?

When oncologists cite “scientific evidence” that antioxidants interfere with chemotherapy and radiation, they tend to ignore the fact that the majority of these sorts of studies show predominantly beneficial effects. The scientific evidence that oncologists often refer to consist primarily of animal studies where they fed animals (usually via an injection into the intestines) dosages of an antioxidant that far exceed the amount normally recommended or in vitro (test tube) studies that used concentrations of antioxidants not achievable in living systems.

For example, when vitamin E is given to mice at dosages not likely to be achieved with normal supplementation in humans (e.g., dosage greater than 35,000 IU) it can reduce the effectiveness of radiation therapy.4 However, based upon human and animal studies, vitamin E at commonly used dosages does not interfere with radiation therapy or chemotherapy and actually appears to enhance the success of these treatments.5,6 The same can be said with CoQ10 and many other antioxidants. The only real exception is N-acetylcysteine (NAC) – a derivative of the naturally occurring amino acid cysteine. NAC has not been shown to significantly affect treatment outcome and carries with it some risk of inhibiting chemotherapy agents (e.g., cisplatin). 7,8

So, I do not recommend it being used during active treatment with any chemotherapy agent. After chemotherapy is over, then NAC may be of benefit in reversing any kidney or nerve damage. As far as what to do, I think that it is extremely important to develop a relationship with an oncologist or cancer treatment center that you have confidence in and that you can communicate with. That may seem like a difficult task, but it can be done. I encourage you to discuss all supplement use with your physician. If your physician is not familiar with the scientific literature that supports the use of antioxidants during chemotherapy and radiation treatments, then I would refer them to the review article written by Dr. Kedar Prasad and his colleagues “High Doses of Antioxidant Vitamins: Essential Ingredients in Improving the Efficacy of Standard Cancer Therapy,” published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (see reference #1). Hopefully, when your oncologist becomes more familiar with the facts they will support your use of the recommendations I am making here.

Why is it important to take a high potency multiple vitamin and mineral if you are on chemotherapy?

Since the immune system requires a constant source of virtually every nutrient, it only makes sense that a high-potency multiple-vitamin and mineral formula is the first step in supporting the immune system with nutritional supplementation in patients on chemotherapy. Deficiencies of virtually any nutrient can result in significantly impaired immune function especially deficiencies of vitamiäns C, E, A, B6, B12, and folic acid. Minerals that are especially important are zinc and selenium. The multiple vitamin and mineral formulas that I recommend, the MultiStart™ products from Natural Factors, are designed to meet the different nutritional needs of different ages and gender. These formulas contain not only gender and age-specific levels for vitamins and minerals, but also appropriate digestive factors and herbal extracts based on gender and/or age.

What is Maitake D or M, D-fraction?

The maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) is the source of immune-enhancing compounds that are being shown to offer significant health benefits. In the early 1980s, Dr. Hiroaki Nanba of Japan was researching the immune-enhancing properties of mushrooms when he came to the conclusion that maitake extracts demonstrated more pronounced antitumor activity in animal tests than other mushroom extracts. One of the key benefits to maitake is the ability to be quite effective when given orally. In contrast, the other mushrooms Dr. Nanba studied such as shitake were only effective when injected into the bloodstream.

In 1984, Dr. Nanba identified a fraction of maitake that possessed a significant ability to stimulate white blood cells known as macrophages (literal translation “big eaters”). These specialized white blood cells phagocytize, or engulf, foreign particles including cancer cells, bacteria, and cellular debris. Dr. Nanba termed his discovery maitake D-fraction. Further purification of the D-fraction yielded the M,D-fraction (U.S. Patent #5,854,404), which is even more bioactive than the D-fraction.

Maitake beta-glucan fractions appear to help reduce the side effects of conventional chemotherapy (and radiation) while at the same time enhancing its effectiveness. In 1994, a group from China published findings from a pilot study on 63 cancer patient reporting a total effective rate against solid tumors at higher than 95 percent and the effective rate against leukemia higher than 90 percent.9 In a preliminary study conducted by Dr. Nanba, 165 patients with advanced cancer were given maitake extract.

In the patients who were also on chemotherapy, 90 percent of the patients experienced a reduction in the side effects common to chemotherapy including hair loss, decreased white blood cell counts, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Maitake was shown to effectively reduce pain levels in 83 percent of the patients. The results were best in breast, lung, and liver cancers. Dr. Nanba reported significant improvement in symptoms or regression of tumors in 73.3 percent of patients with breast cancer, 66.6 percent in lung cancer, and 46.6 percent in liver cancer.

The dosage of maitake extracts is based upon the level of the D- or M,D-fraction. The therapeutic dosage range is based upon body weight, 0.5mg to 1.0 mg for every 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of body weight per day. That translates to a dosage of approximately 35-70 mg of the D- or M,D-fraction. The dosage recommendation for prevention is typically 5 to 15 mg of the D- or M,D-fraction. For best results take 20 minutes before meals or on an empty stomach.

What are proteolytic enzymes?

Proteolytic enzymes (or proteases) refer to the various enzymes that digest (break down into smaller units) protein. These enzymes include the pancreatic proteases chymotrypsin and trypsin, bromelain (pineapple enzyme), papain (papaya enzyme), fungal proteases, and Serratia peptidase (the “silk worm” enzyme). Proteolytic enzymes have a long history of use in cancer treatment. The clinical research that currently exists on proteolytic enzymes suggests significant benefits in the treatment of many forms of cancer. Clinical studies have shown improvements in the general condition of patients, quality of life, and modest to significant improvements in life expectancy. 11

Studies have consisted of patients with cancers of the breast, lung, stomach, head and neck, ovaries, cervix, and colon; and lymphomas and multiple myeloma. These studies involved the use of proteolytic enzymes in conjunction with conventional therapy (surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation) indicating that proteolytic enzymes can be used in conjunction with these conventional therapies. Because the animal and vegetarian-derived proteolytic enzymes have slightly different effects, I recommend using Zymactive™ – a high potency proteolytic enzyme complex that features a wide range of powerful proteolytic enzymes. I recommend starting at the lower dosage level of one tablet 15 minutes before meals three times per day and increase gradually weekly increments to the full dosage of three tablets three times daily. Note: taking too much of any proteolytic enzyme can lead to gastrointestinal upset and/or diarrhea.

What is curcumin and how does it help the cancer patient?

Curcumin is the yellow pigment of