Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Chemo? Remember to tell your doc about herbal supplements you take

If it's natural, it's safe, right? If this statement is true, then arsenic and digitalis wouldn't be harmful. Just because a product is natural, coming from the earth or water, does not mean that it is necessarily harmless or safe.

Of course, arsenic and digitalis are extreme examples, but even the approved products sold in the stores and recommended by natural health practitioners are not safe for everyone, which is why it is important to understand what you are taking, how it affects your body, and what interactions it may have with your own medical situation and any medical treatment you may be undergoing.

People who are receiving chemotherapy for cancer are often tempted by supplements, as well as the more standard vitamins, for a variety of reasons, the most common being to deal with the unpleasant effects of chemo and to try to keep their body as healthy as possible throughout the treatment. These are good goals, but as a press release issued last month by Northwestern Memorial Hospital warns,  "Acai berry, cumin, herbal tea, turmeric and long-term use of garlic – all herbal supplements commonly believed to be beneficial to your health – may negatively impact chemotherapy treatment." The problem isn't the supplement itself, but how it interacts with everything else your body is being subjected to.

Herbal supplements, defined as plant or plant parts used for therapeutic purposes, can interact with chemotherapy drugs through different mechanisms. Some herbs can interfere with the metabolism of the drugs, making them less effective while other herbs such as long-term use of garlic may increase the risk of bleeding during surgery. While culinary herbs used in small quantities for flavoring are generally safe, consuming large amounts for prolonged periods of time may have a negative effect on the body when going through chemotherapy. "

Recent research shows that 50 percent of patients undergoing chemotherapy did not tell their doctor they were taking alternative therapies. “Some believe it’s not important, while others are uncomfortable admitting they are pursuing alternative therapies,” said [June M.]McKoy, [MD, geriatrician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and lead investigator on the ASCO presentation]. “The truth is, integrative approaches can be beneficial for cancer patients, but it’s important to take these approaches at the right time and under the supervision of your doctor.” 

So, be safe - before taking any substances that your doctor and cancer team isn't aware of, check with them. You may want to bring the actual label of the product you want to take in case there is more in the product than you realize. Different brands may have different binders, dosages, etc. 

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