AFTER A CANCER DIAGNOSIS, it’s common for patients to pair conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation with alternative mean of addressing their health concerns, such as nutritional supplements.

Their intentions can range from improving their nutrition to dealing with treatment side effects, but “a big reason is that cancer patients and survivors are looking to gain a sense of control over their disease,” says Nina Sanford, a radiation oncologist who led a study on use of complementary and alternative medicines published in the May 2019 issue of JAMA Oncology.

In separate research published May 7, 2019, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Fang Fang Zhang, a cancer epidemiologist at Tufts University in Boston, and her colleagues looked at data from 30,000 respondents to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected from 1999 to 2010, as well as mortality data for the group. They found that supplements did not decrease the risk of death from any cause, and that taking 1,000 milligrams or more of calcium supplements daily was associated with an increased cancer mortality risk. However, those who got their calcium from food, not supplements, did not have an increased risk of dying from cancer.

Essential Nutrients

Getting enough nutrients may seem challenging, particularly if your appetite is diminished due to treatment, but it can be crucial.

What you eat can affect how you respond to treatment, as well as your overall quality of life, says registered dietitian nutritionist Wendy Kaplan. She recommends getting nutrients from a healthy diet that includes a variety of foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and lean animal protein. However, if your oncologist recommends taking particular supplements for your nutritional needs, take them.

Zhang says that having these nutrients come from food provides multiple benefits. “When we eat food, we don’t just eat a single nutrient,” she says. Also, food-based nutrients may be regulated by the body in a way that makes food a better source of nutrients for the general population than supplements, she explains. Nonetheless, some populations, such as people with medical conditions affecting nutrient absorption, people on vegetarian and vegan diets, and elderly people, may not be able to get all of the nutrients they need from food, Zhang says. Populations with specific nutritional needs should consult their doctors about the use of dietary supplements.

Whole-Wheat Pasta with Ricotta, Roasted Garlic and Walnuts

A quick, easy way to help introduce some nuts to your diet.

  • ¼ cup chopped walnuts
  • 8 oz. whole-wheat fusilli, rotini or pappardelle
  • 1 cup reduced-fat ricotta cheese
  • 6-8 roasted garlic cloves
  • ½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Spread walnuts on baking sheet and toast until fragrant and lightly browned, 10 minutes, stirring nuts after 5 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. While pasta cooks, combine ricotta and roasted garlic in bowl. Using the back of a spoon, cream together until mixture is creamy and light. Mix in Parmesan cheese and set aside.

Drain pasta, leaving some moisture in spirals. In mixing bowl, combine pasta with oil. Divide pasta among 4 bowls. Spoon 5 dollops of cheese mixture on top of pasta in each bowl. Garnish with pepper to taste, toasted walnuts and parsley. Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Sanford, too, encourages her patients to speak up about the supplements they are using or considering using. In her study, more than 10% of cancer survivors did not tell their health care providers about supplements, often saying that physicians didn’t ask or that they didn’t feel that their providers needed to know. “In general, I don’t think providers would be upset” if their patients ask about supplements, she says. “We would be happy to learn [about supplements] along with our patients.”