Being Well

Choosing the Right Vitamins and Supplements for Cancer Patients

Choosing the right vitamin for you can be confusing, especially if you're a cancer patient. Here's what you should keep in mind and what to talk to your doctor about.

You want to take good care of your health, and you know that nutrition is a key piece of the puzzle. While you eat a healthy diet, you may be concerned that you’re not getting all the nutrients you need and you’re considering taking a vitamin or supplement. However, choosing the right vitamins for you can be confusing, especially if you’re a cancer patient.

Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements — Oh My!

These days, there seems to be a vitamin or supplement for everyone and everything. There are vitamins specially formulate for women, men, children and older adults. There are supplements designed to strengthen your bones and even your hair and nails. Choosing the right vitamins can be bewildering.

For people with cancer, maintaining good nutritional status is important, says Carole Havrila, a registered dietitian and certified oncology specialist at UVA Cancer Center. It can help bolster your immunity and promote recovery during and after treatment.

But there are some distinct challenges that cancer patients face. “This is a unique population where most people have come into treatment and may have lost 20 to 30 pounds or may be malnourished,” says Havrila.

To help patients, Havrila works individually with them to evaluate their diet and overall nutritional profile. Then, she helps them optimize their diet, offering suggestions for food to incorporate into their meals that may help promote healing and good health. “We can help you tweak your diet so you’re eating a diet that’s cancer preventative and helps support you in treatment and recovery. We’ll add supplements if needed,” she says.

Depending on a patient’s individual nutritional status, Havrila sometimes suggests a vitamin or supplement to fill the gaps. Generally, she considers a multivitamin OK, as long as it doesn’t exceed 100 percent of the recommended dietary allowance of each vitamin and mineral.

There are some populations that may need to consider a supplement. For example, women who are post menopause can be at risk for osteoporosis, so Havrila may suggest a calcium and a vitamin D supplement. If you’re a vegan, Havrila advises you to consider a vitamin B12 supplement, a vitamin only found naturally in animal sources.

Vitamins and Supplement Aren’t a Cure-All

Despite what you may read in magazines or hear from social media, no vitamin or supplement has been shown to prevent or cure cancer, says Havrila. “The research doesn’t show that,” she says. “But research is getting stronger that diet can be helpful. That’s where people can get disease-fighting nutrients. We can’t reproduce the benefits of real food when we isolate nutrients and put them in a pill.”

Plus, there are downsides to some supplements when you’re undergoing treatment or even taking other medication,” says Havrila. In addition, Havrila says there’s a lot of misinformation. “Vitamins and dietary supplements are 100 percent unregulated. You always run the risk of taking something contaminated with a heavy metal, or taking something and spending a lot of money on it and it doesn’t have the active ingredient,” she says.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to vitamin supplementation. The best route is to have your diet evaluated by your doctor or a registered dietitian, and to then work with your healthcare team to come up with a customized plan to optimize your diet.

UVA has a team of registered dietitians to inform and empower you to make the right nutritional decisions for your health.

Learn More
Christine Yu