Selenium May Decrease Chemotherapy Side Effects
Women with ovarian cancer may have fewer side effects from chemotherapy by supplementing with selenium, according to a study in Gynecologic Oncology (2004;93:320–7).
Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women. As there may be no symptoms in the early stages, ovarian cancer is often advanced by the time it is diagnosed, at which point it is harder to treat and more likely to be fatal. While its causes are not completely understood, certain risk factors are associated with its development. Women with a first-degree relative (sister, mother) with ovarian cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. It is also more common in women over 60, and in women who have never had a child or who had a child after age 30.
Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. The drugs cisplatin (Platinol™) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan™) interfere with the growth of cancer cells and are commonly used to treat ovarian cancer. These drugs also affect the health of normal cells, often causing problems including anemia, hair loss, diarrhea, increased susceptibility to infections, and painful sores in the mouth. Other chemotherapy side effects are unusual tiredness, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, kidney damage, and general feelings of illness (malaise).
Chemotherapy also generates a group of highly reactive molecules called free radicals. These unstable chemicals are responsible for the damage that occurs in normal cells. Antioxidants may help prevent damage to the body’s normal cells by transforming free radicals into less toxic compounds.
Selenium is a component of glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme that acts as a powerful antioxidant. Chemotherapy reduces the amount of selenium in the body, and a deficiency of selenium is associated with more kidney damage from chemotherapy. Selenium has the ability to bind with certain heavy metals including platinum (a component of cisplatin), resulting in a less toxic compound. Selenium may also help protect the body from developing cancer.
The new study examined the effect of selenium as part of an antioxidant formula on the side effects of chemotherapy. The study included 62 women (averaging 50 years of age) with ovarian cancer. All of the participants received standard treatment for ovarian cancer (surgery followed by chemotherapy [cisplatin and cyclophosphamide]). The women were also randomly assigned to receive either (1) an antioxidant formula containing beta-carotene (25,000 IU), vitamin C (200 mg), vitamin E (27 IU), riboflavin (4.5 mg), niacin (45 mg), and selenium (200 mcg); or (2) the same formula without selenium, once a day for three months. The following parameters were measured in all of the participants: type and severity of side effects from chemotherapy, markers of free radical activity in the body, and red and white blood cell numbers.
Women who received selenium had significantly higher amounts of glutathione peroxidase in their red blood cells than the women in the group not receiving selenium, suggesting improved antioxidant activity as a result of selenium supplementation. The selenium-treated group also had significantly more neutrophils, a type of white blood cell responsible for fighting bacterial infections. This finding is important as infections are more likely in people undergoing chemotherapy, and in cancer patients in general. The group receiving selenium also experienced significantly less nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, flatulence (intestinal gas), mouth sores, hair loss, weakness, malaise, and loss of appetite as a result of chemotherapy than the group without selenium. The incidence of diarrhea was not affected by selenium supplementation.
Antioxidants may significantly benefit people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Many antioxidants may be safely taken with chemotherapy drugs; however, consulting with a healthcare provider knowledgeable in drug–nutrient interactions is advisable as certain antioxidants can potentially block the anticancer effect of chemotherapy.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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