It is possible, however, that the lack of benefit in clinical studies can be explained by differences in the effects of the tested antioxidants when they are consumed as purified chemicals as opposed to when they are consumed in foods, which contain complex mixtures of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals (3). Therefore, acquiring a more complete understanding of the antioxidant content of individual foods, how the various antioxidants and other substances in foods interact with one another, and factors that influence the uptake and distribution of food-derived antioxidants in the body are active areas of ongoing cancer prevention research.

Should people already diagnosed with cancer take antioxidant supplements?

Several randomized controlled trials, some including only small numbers of patients, have investigated whether taking antioxidant supplements during cancer treatment alters the effectiveness or reduces the toxicity of specific therapies (28). Although these trials had mixed results, some found that people who took antioxidant supplements during cancer therapy had worse outcomes, especially if they were smokers.

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Additional large randomized controlled trials are needed to provide clear scientific evidence about the potential benefits or harms of taking antioxidant supplements during cancer treatment. Until more is known about the effects of antioxidant supplements in cancer patients, these supplements should be used with caution. Cancer patients should inform their doctors about their use of any dietary supplement.                     

Selected References

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5. Patterson RE, White E, Kristal AR, et al. Vitamin supplements and cancer risk: the epidemiologic evidence. Cancer Causes and Control 1997; 8(5):786-802.

6. Blot WJ, Li JY, Taylor PR, et al. Nutrition intervention trials in Linxian, China: supplementation with specific vitamin/mineral combinations, cancer incidence, and disease-specific mortality in the general population. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1993;85:1483–91.

7. Qiao YL, Dawsey SM, Kamangar F, et al. Total and cancer mortality after supplementation with vitamins and minerals: follow-up of the Linxian General Population Nutrition Intervention Trial. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2009;101(7):507-518.

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11. Albanes D, Malila N, Taylor PR, et al. Effects of supplemental alpha-tocopherol and beta-carotene on colorectal cancer. Cancer Causes and Control 2000; 11(3):197-205.

12. Wright ME, Virtamo J, Hartman AM, et al. Effects of alpha-tocopherol and beta-carotene supplementation on upper aerodigestive tract cancers in a large, randomized controlled trial. Cancer 2007; 109(5):891-898.

13. Omenn GS, Goodman GE, Thornquist MD, et al. Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. New England Journal of Medicine 1996;334(18):1150-1155.

14. Goodman GE, Thornquist MD, Balmes J, et al. The Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial: incidence of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality during 6-year follow-up after stopping beta-carotene and retinol supplements. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2004;96(23):1743-1750.

15. Neuhouser ML, Barnett MJ, Kristal AR, et al. Dietary supplement use and prostate cancer risk in the Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 2009;18(8):2202-2206.

16. Hennekens CH, Buring JE, Manson JE, Stampfer M, Rosner B, Cook NR, et al. Lack of effect of long-term supplementation with beta carotene on the incidence of malignant neoplasms and cardiovascular disease. New England Journal of Medicine 1996;334:1145–9.

17. Lee IM, Cook NR, Manson JE. Beta-carotene supplementation and incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease: Women’s Health Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1999;91:2102–6.

18. Lee IM, Cook NR, Gaziano JM, et al. Vitamin E in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer: the Women’s Health Study: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2005;294(1):56-65.

19. Hercberg S, Galan P, Preziosi P, et al. The SU.VI.MAX Study: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of the health effects of antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Archives of Internal Medicine 2004;164(21):2335-2342.

20. Hercberg S, Ezzedine K, Guinot C, et al. Antioxidant supplementation increases the risk of skin cancers in women but not in men. Journal of Nutrition 2007;137(9):2098-2105.

21. Hercberg S, Kesse-Guyot E, Druesne-Pecollo N, et al. Incidence of cancers, ischemic cardiovascular diseases and mortality during 5-year follow-up after stopping antioxidant vitamins and minerals supplements: a postintervention follow-up in the SU.VI.MAX Study. International Journal of Cancer 2010;127(8):1875-1881.

22. Ezzedine K, Latreille J, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Incidence of skin cancers during 5-year follow-up after stopping antioxidant vitamins and mineral supplementation. European Journal of Cancer 2010;46(18):3316-3322.

23. Lonn E, Bosch J, Yusuf S, et al. Effects of long-term vitamin E supplementation on cardiovascular events and cancer: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2005;293(11):1338-1347.

24. Lippman SM, Klein EA, Goodman PJ, et al. Effect of selenium and vitamin E on risk of prostate cancer and other cancers: the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). JAMA 2009;301(1):39-51.

25. Klein EA, Thompson IM, Tangen CM, et al. Vitamin E and the risk of prostate cancer: the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). JAMA 2011;306(14):1549-1556.

26. Gaziano JM, Glynn RJ, Christen WG, et al. Vitamins E and C in the prevention of prostate and total cancer in men: the Physicians’ Health Study II randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2009;301(1):52-62.

27. Fortmann SP, Burda BU, Senger CA, et al. Vitamin and mineral supplements in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer: an updated systematic evidence review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Annals of Internal Medicine 2013.

28. Lawenda BD, Kelly KM, Ladas EJ, et al. Should supplemental antioxidant administration be avoided during chemotherapy and radiation therapy? Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2008;100(11):773-783.

Source: National Cancer Institute