Dietary Supplement Use During Lung Cancer Treatment

Discussing the Controversy Regarding Dietary Supplement Use During Lung Cancer Treatment.

by Jessica Iannotta MS, RD, CSO, CDN
Chief Clinical Officer, Meals to Heal

As a Registered Dietitian and a Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition, I often am the first to discover that a patient is taking a dietary supplement.  Often it may be well into treatment before it is identified that this particular supplement may interact with the patient’s chemotherapy regimen.  Although supplementation can be controversial, it is important to understand why and how to address your concerns with your medical team.

Controversy regarding dietary supplements                              

The role of dietary supplements during lung cancer treatment is a continuous debate among health professionals. Often this debate is centered around the lack of quality evidence to substantiate their safety and efficacy.  Historically, there has been little evidence to support the safe use of dietary supplements.  As their use has gained more popularity, there is a growing body of research regarding their safety and efficacy. One such source is the Natural Standard Database, which is not available to the general public.  Free consumer access is available on certain websites, including Meals to Heal’s Nutrition Resources section.  The Natural Standard database details the current state of evidence on a wide range of botanicals, supplements and alternative therapies, ranking them according to the strength of the evidence.  In addition, the Natural Standard database includes common uses, as well as possible herb-drug interactions and side effects.

Dietary supplements verses whole foods

Even though supplements can fill the gap of nutritional needs, they can never fully replace a balanced diet that includes whole foods. Eating whole foods in their natural form is the most beneficial. In fact, it has been found that many of the benefits from fruits and vegetables are not only from the vitamin and mineral content. Whole foods are in fact good sources of thousands of phytochemical compounds that supplements do not always possess. The cancer fighting properties of whole foods consist of many molecules compared to a supplement, which is typically comprised of only one molecule.1,2

Lung cancer patients are advised to be cautious when considering dietary supplement use, as vitamin and mineral supplements are not substitutes for established medicine. Although supplemental intake of essential vitamins and minerals could seem desirable, it may not be beneficial, as each person and cancer case is unique. It is important to consult a physician before taking any dietary supplements, because it is possible that potential interactions may affect the outcome of treatment.3  In particular, results from a large trial known as the ATBC study (Alpha tocopherol, beta-carotene cohort study) found that lung cancer patients who took beta-carotene supplements and had a history of smoking had increased risk for mortality.  In addition, popular antioxidants like vitamin E were also shown to have no benefit for lung cancer patients.4 Supplementation with ginger, on the other hand, has been shown to be beneficial for treatment-induced nausea and vomiting, a common side effect of many lung cancer treatments. 5

How to use the right knowledge

In summary, it is important to research the safety and efficacy data of supplements before using due to their uncertain effects and possible interactions with lung cancer treatments.  Speak openly with your oncology team before taking supplements or following diets that appear beneficial.   Your medical team may not always ask you what supplements you may be taking or are interested in taking.   Therefore, it is important that you regularly communicate with your healthcare team in order to make the decision that best meets your needs and is compatible with your treatment plan.


*Join the conversation:  What are your thoughts on dietary supplement use during lung cancer treatment?  Comment below.




  1. Béliveau, Richard, and Denis Gingras. Foods to Fight Cancer: Essential Foods to Help Prevent Cancer. New York: DK Pub., 2007. Print.
  2. Thompson, C. “Whole Foods vs. Supplements?” LILIPOH 10 (41), 14. (2005)
  3. Norman, Helen A., Rivta R. Butrum, Elaine Feldman, and Daniel Heber. “The Role of Dietary Supplements during Cancer Therapy.” The Journal of Nutrition. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences, n.d. Web. 12 June 2012.
  4. Holick, CN et al.  Dietary carotenoids, serum beta-carotene, and retinol and risk of lung cancer in the alpha-tocopherol, beta-carotene cohort study.  American Journal of  Epidemiology. 156(6): 536-47
  5. Ryan JL, Heckler C, Dakhill J, Kirschner J, Flynn PJ, Hickock JT, Morrow GR.  Ginger for chemotherapy-related nausea in cancer patients: a URCC CCOP randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trial of 644 cancer patients.  Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2009 ASCO Annual Meeting Proceedings (Post-Meeting Edition). 27(15S): 9511, 2009.


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