To Your Health

What can be done to counter the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation?

Q. In addition to chemotherapy and radiation treatment for lung cancer, my doctor has me taking high doses of an amino acid and L-glutamine, to help with side effects. Is there anything else I can take to help counter the side effects of chemo and radiation?

A. Cancer is rapidly growing tissue that will eventually take over the body. Once present, cancer cells can travel through the bloodstream or through lymph vessels to other parts of the body, growing and displacing normal tissue in a process known as metastasis.

Your physician is very wise to recommend the glutamine supplement. Cancer produces a deficiency of glutamine that is often worsened by chemotherapy, so much so that lack of glutamine may be a major contributor to several well-known side effects of chemo, such as diarrhea, nerve damage, loss of muscle tissue, and mouth sores. You can be very generous with a glutamine supplement during chemo, since research indicates that amounts in the range of 30 grams (about two tablespoons of the powder or 60 capsules) per day are needed.

It has long been observed that a major cause of death in about half of cancer patients is a condition known as cachexia, which results in weight loss, fatigue, loss of appetite, and impaired immune function. Simply increasing caloric intake does not necessarily reverse cachexia because factors secreted by the cancer, such as "tumor necrosis factor-alpha," are involved. Supplements of omega-3 fatty acids, especially the fatty acids found in fish oil, slow the steady deterioration seen in cachexia.

Almost all chemo drugs damage the liver, suppress the immune system, and often cause irreversible damage to the heart. Antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, coenzyme Q-10, vitamin A, beta carotene, bioflavonoids, selenium, and a large number of other food components will protect these tissues from such damage, but until recently many physicians were reluctant to recommend antioxidant supplements. They reasoned that since chemo drugs usually act as "pro-oxidants," supplements of the antioxidant nutrients would block their effectiveness. Patrick Quillin, Ph.D., in his book Beating Cancer With Nutrition, points out that cancer cells are vastly different from normal cells and do not easily make use of antioxidants. Normal cells, on the other hand, eagerly take in all the antioxidants they can and thus tend to be protected from damage by chemo drugs, while cancer cells without antioxidant protection are vulnerable. Research is indicating that antioxidant therapy during chemo improves the effectiveness of chemo.

Even when they are unsure about food supplements, all physicians agree that a diet based on wholesome, nutrient-rich foods, especially emphasizing vegetables and fruits, is helpful.

Other "complementary" therapies that are often employed include acupuncture to help with nausea and pain, visualization and other mind-body techniques to lessen the stresses of cancer treatment, and exercise to reduce fatigue and anxiety.

You will find a discussion of the use of antioxidant supplements, especially alpha-lipoic acid, in the "To Your Health" column for the May 28, 2004, issue of The Austin Chronicle.

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