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THE recent findings that taking aspirin and Vitamin D supplements, after a first encounter with cancer, may reduce the recurrence of the disease provide enough evidence to merit further investigation with some well-designed clinical trials, says the October 2010 issue of the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Letter.

Because of early detection, better treatment and an aging population, there is an increasing number of individuals surviving cancer...about 12 million Americans are cancer survivors...much attention has been focused on what can be done to prevent a second one, says the health letter.

While as many as a third of cancer survivors start taking vitamin and mineral supplements, it is unclear if it is the best way to go. In fact, the American Cancer Society recommends staying away from high-dose supplements and sticking to the standard multivitamin just to fill in the nutritional gap left by less-than-perfect diets, and other cancer organizations are similarly cautious.

However, in an article published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, two Harvard researchers, Edward Giovannucci and Andrew T. Chan, who reviewed the evidence for vitamin and mineral supplements for cancer survivors, found that, surprisingly, individuals who survived their disease haven’t been taking vitamins and minerals, so direct evidence is “essentially nonexistent.”

Thus, until that research is done, we must go by the results of studies of long-term supplement use and how it correlates with advanced or fatal cases of cancer.

Nevertheless, the most encouraging news of Giovannucci and Chan’s review is that Vitamin D is a prospect for lowering cancer recurrence.

Under normal circumstances, Vitamin D is generated in skin exposed to the ultraviolet B (UVB) part of the light spectrum, and individuals in higher altitudes with less exposure to UVB light from the sun have higher rates of fatal colon, breast and ovarian cancer.

Also, the association is stronger for mortality than incidence, suggesting that Vitamin D might have effect late in the disease process.

Many other studies point to Vitamin D having anti-cancer activity and some animal experiments suggest particularly strong effects against metastases...cancer’s spread from one part of the body to another.

Studies also show that high levels of Vitamin D in the blood of patients with lung, breast and colon cancer were associated with lower rates of death and cancer recurrence.

Although research done so far doesn’t prove that Vitamin D supplements will reduce colon cancer recurrence, there’s enough evidence to merit further investigation, adds the letter.

As for the other vitamins, the antioxidant vitamins...Vitamin C and Vitamin E don’t seem to have broad anti-cancer effects, and beta carotene, a form of Vitamin A, seems to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. But Giovannucci and Chan hold a faint hope for Vitamin E perhaps reducing the risk of advanced or fatal prostate cancer in smokers.

Folate may have a “split personality”...reducing the risk of precancerous polyps, but once they have developed, raising the risk of the polyps becoming full-fledged colon cancer.

Thus, Harvard researchers say it would be “prudent” for cancer survivors to avoid excessive folate intake, which may be at odds with the American Cancer Society’s endorsement of multivitamins, many of which contain 100 percent of the daily requirement for folate plus the folate from flour and cereal grains which are fortified with folic acid.

On the other hand, according to Giovannucci and Chan, the evidence for aspirin reducing the risk of colon cancer recurrence are “compelling” and point to results from a randomized trial that showed a daily 325-mg dose of aspirin reduced the recurrence by 35 percent among 500 patients who had been treated for early-stage colon cancer.

In addition, a study led by Chan linked a regular aspirin habit after a colon cancer diagnosis to a lowering of risk for dying from the disease.

Earlier this year, a different group of Harvard researchers reported results suggestive of aspirin protection against breast cancer recurrence.

However, results for lung cancer haven’t been quite as encouraging.

The health letter offers the mechanism by which aspirin, the humble pain reliever, might keep cancer at bay: Aspirin inhibits the COX-2 enzyme which influences cell growth and therefore the development of cancer, in addition to catalyzing inflammatory processes that are part of pain.

Thus, by blocking COX-2, aspirin may have the ability to steer wayward cells away from a cancerous fate and, if the current findings hold up, maybe it can do the same for cancer survivors, explains the letter.

Thus, research findings show that aspirin and, possibly Vitamin D, may be the shining beacons for cancer survivors that can prevent the recurrence of disease for cancer survivors...and, maybe someday, “cancers might be tested for their COX-2 status so doctors and patients would know if taking an aspirin is worth it,” concludes the health letter.