Use of antioxidants during cancer therapy

Keep Your Strength

After sending you the e-Alert “Crossed Purposes” (2/16/06), about the use of antioxidants during cancer therapy, I received a poignant e-mail from an HSI member named Amy.

Amy writes: “My husband has cancer and I would like to know more about this side effect cachexia. He is definitely experiencing all of the symptoms and right now can not get out of bed.”

First of all, our best wishes go out to Amy and her husband as they rise to this challenge.

Secondly, if their doctor is well versed in nutritional regimens for the treatment of cancer and cachexia, he may be aware of studies that have shown omega-3 fatty acids to be useful in addressing this condition.

The Greeks have two words for it

The word cachexia is derived from two Greek words – kakos and hexis – combined to mean “bad condition.” It’s not very descriptive, but all too true.

Cachexia is characterized by a loss of vitality, poor appetite, weight loss, decomposition of muscle and depression. This condition is common in patients with advanced cancer, but may also be experienced with other chronic diseases such as AIDS.

In “Crossed Purposes” I mentioned a 2003 study that tested nutritional therapy on 200 patients with cachexia. Researchers found that a daily high-calorie/high-protein supplement, enriched with vitamins C and E, and about 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, prompted a significantly higher rate of weight gain, increased lean body mass and improved quality of life compared to subjects who received a similar supplement, but without the added vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

In an interview with Reuters Health, University of Iowa (UI) researcher, C. Patrick Burns, M.D., explained that tumors may prompt the production of inflammatory compounds that contribute to the development of cachexia. Omega 3 fatty acids inhibit inflammatory compounds while also slowing fat metabolism and protein degradation, two other factors that may play a role in cachexia.

Upping the dose

In a 2004 study led by Dr. Burns, his UI team recruited 43 cancer patients with moderate to severe malnutrition. Each subject had experienced at least two percent loss of total body weight in the month preceding the trial.

All of the subjects received concentrated, high doses of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil supplements. Dose was assigned according to body weight. For instance, a subject who weighed 150 pounds received 7.5 grams of fish oil each day for a little over one month.

Several subjects dropped out of the study due to side effects, which included diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. But among the 36 remaining subjects, 24 stabilized their weight and six either achieved their normal body weight or gained more than five percent of their pre-study weight. Reporting the results in the journal Cancer, researchers added: “Quality-of-life scores were superior for patients who gained weight.”

Six patients lost more than five percent of their body weight, so the intervention wasn’t successful across the board. But the UI team noted that more positive outcomes might be seen in patients whose illness is not so severe and who can continue taking the supplements for more than a month.

Like individual cases of cancer, each case of cachexia is unique, requiring a unique treatment. Hopefully Amy and her husband will speak to their doctor about supplementing with high-quality fish oil.

“Phase II Study of High-Dose Fish Oil Capsules for Patients with Cancer-Related Cachexia” Cancer, Vol. 101, No. 2, 7/15/04,
“Fish Oil Helps Some Cancer Patients with Wasting” Anne Harding, Reuters Health, 8/6/04,