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What Do I Need to Know about Supplements?

After a cancer diagnosis, it is not uncommon to ask yourself, “Is there anything else I can take or do that will help my body fight this cancer?” Before you buy several vitamins, minerals, and herbs, there are a few things to consider.

First, what is a supplement? A supplement can be vitamins, minerals, herbs, or a combination of these in a powder or liquid form. A supplement is not meant to take the place of food but should be taken in addition to food.

Supplements, just like medications, have the potential to interact with each other. As a cancer patient, it is wise to be especially cautious when introducing any new supplements. Consult your healthcare team and a registered dietitian before taking anything in addition to prescribed medications and chemotherapy.

Here are some questions and points to consider while determining if a nutrition supplement right for you.

Is it possible and feasible to eat good, whole, minimally processed foods?

  • The first approach to maximizing nutrient intake is to eat a wide variety of healthy foods such as whole grains (oats, brown rice, whole wheat), a variety of fruits and vegetables, and lean protein. The body absorbs nutrients best from food sources. Food is the safest way to get the body what it needs.
  • Whole foods are different than taking a supplement because each food is complex and contains a unique combination of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
  • A dietitian can help guide food choices and recommend the appropriate amounts.

Has cancer caused a restricted or limited food intake?

  • If food intake is restricted in any way due to cancer such as decreased appetite, difficulty chewing or swallowing, digestive problems, etc., consult with a dietitian for food recommendations.
  • A nutrition supplement may be needed and a dietitian can assess that as well.

Nutrition supplements can be very expensive.

  • Ask your healthcare team and consult with a dietitian before making any purchases.
  • In the meantime, use the money to purchase whole, healthy foods instead.

Nutrition supplements can be dangerous.

  • Certain vitamins and minerals can be harmful to the body when they are stored by the body or consumed in very high doses.
  • Make sure current medications do not interact with any vitamins or minerals. Your health care team and a registered dietitian can determine any potential drug-nutrient interactions.
  • Some supplements could interfere with cancer treatment regimens.
  • Your health care team should be aware of current supplements and updated regularly if there are any changes.

Beware of gimmicks.

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Many of these types of products are usually not well researched, are overpriced, and do not do what they claim. If something promises a “miracle cure” that is unfortunately a false and misleading claim.
  • A dietitian can review product claims and answer any questions.