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Vitamin E - Friend Or Foe During Radiation Therapy?


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Many people believe that Vitamin E is beneficial, and therefore take Vitamin E supplements. Despite the absence of proven advantages, antioxidant vitamins are widely used for prolonged periods of time and at high doses by healthy people, those at risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer, and by individuals with cancer.

Intuitively, one would think that Vitamin E protects the body from the toxic effects of radiation. Thus, many people take Vitamin E during radiation therapy, hoping it will reduce potential side effects, but do not report it to their physicians.

Study Design To test whether or not Vitamin E administration during radiation therapy could prevent second cancers from developing in the future, a clinical trial was conducted in Canada. Its results were published recently in The International Journal of Cancer. Five hundred forty patients with early stage cancer of the head and neck who were to undergo radiation therapy were the subjects of the study.

Head and neck cancer originates in the area of the head and neck and includes malignant tumors of the mouth, throat, voice box, sinuses and lymph glands in the neck The most common type of head and neck cancer is squamous (pronounced SKWAY-miss) cell cancer, which describes the type of cell from which the cancer originated. The standard of care for squamous cell cancer of the head and neck often includes radiation therapy, as well as surgery and chemotherapy.

Nearly half of the patients received 400 IU (International Units) of Vitamin E and the other half received placebo, an inactive substance. The people in the former group continued to use Vitamin E for three years after radiation therapy. Patients were followed for a total of six and a half years.

Outcome The results of the study were astonishing and revealed not only that Vitamin E was not beneficial, but in fact, was associated with a nearly 40% increase in the risk of death when compared to those counterparts who received a placebo.

Conclusions The researchers concluded that is Vitamin E is not protective, and in fact, it might actually be harmful to patients with head and neck cancer who are receiving radiation therapy.

Discussion Vitamin E falls into the category of anti-oxidants. Theoretically, the adverse outcome can be attributed to Vitamin E having a paradoxical effect, that is, instead of serving as an anti-oxidant, Vitamin E might have promoted oxidation; by displacing other antioxidants within the cells of the body, these cells might have become more vulnerable to damage from oxidation.

Recommendations People who are undergoing radiation therapy should inform their physicians of all non-prescription medications and supplements they are taking. The good news is that doctors can then counsel patients wisely as to which products may be used safely. For more information about radiation therapy, visit, the official website of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology.

Dr. Kornmehl is a board certified radiation oncologist at Passaic Beth Israel Regional Medical Center, Passaic, NJ and author of the critically acclaimed consumer health book, “The Best News About Radiation Therapy" (M. Evans, 2004). Her website is


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