Herbal Supplements: Do You Want Lead with That?

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Do you know what’s in your ginkgo biloba bottle and what it really does?

Investigators from the Congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that some supplement sellers claim their herbal products could cure cancer and other diseases.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements and their regulations don’t allow sellers to make claims that their products can treat, prevent, or cure specific diseases.

In addition, when an independent lab tested 40 randomly purchased supplements they found trace amounts of hazardous contaminants in 37 of them. The contaminants include lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, although the levels do not exceed any FDA or EPA regulations. Pesticides were also found and some did exceed FDA advisory levels.

The GAO team reviewed 30 retail web sites and posed as elderly consumers visiting 22 storefront and mail-order retailers of herbal dietary supplements.  They questioned sales staff about the supplements.  Here are some of the claims they found:

The report notes that herbal dietary supplement use by the elderly in the US has increased substantially over the last few years.  This study was done to determine if deceptive marketing practices are occurring and whether the supplements are contaminated.

AICR does not recommend taking supplements as a means to prevent cancer.  However if you decide to take a supplement, look for one with a USP seal.
According to the USP, their Verified Mark helps assure consumers of a manufacturer’s commitment to quality and helps them easily identify and choose a product that

  • contains the ingredients listed on the label, in the declared potency and amount
  • does not contain harmful levels of specified contaminants
  • will break down and release into the body in a specified amount of time
  • and has been made according to the FDA’s Good Manufacturing Processes

Herbal products and supplements can be confusing and cancer survivors (and anyone!) should talk with their doctors before taking any supplement.

Helping Childhood Cancer Survivors

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The (relatively) good news: With today’s treatments, children who get cancer are surviving longer then ever before. According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rates for all childhood cancers combined increased from about 58% in 1975–77 to 80% in 1996–2003.

The bad news: Many childhood cancer survivors face a variety of health problems throughout their lives.

A new analysis of childhood cancer survivors highlights the medical problems and other health challenges these children face as adults. The study is published in the current issue of Cancer; you can read the abstract here.

In the study, researchers drew upon data from a National Health Interview Survey that included 410 adult survivors of childhood cancer and almost 300,000 people without cancer. The study found that childhood survivors were more likely than other adults to say their health is only fair or poor (24% compared to 11%), more likely to be unable to work because of medical problems (21% compared to 6%) and more likely to be limited by their health in terms of the work they could do (31% compared to 11%).

Lately, there’s been a lot of work investigating how lifestyle choices can play a role in helping childhood cancer survivors. One study, funded by AICR, is looking at how certain foods may influence the effect of common treatment for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Other studies are looking at the benefits of physical activity, both during and after treatment.

To learn more about the research in this field, read ScienceNow’s Childhood Cancer Survivors: Healthy Living.

And for more information on childhood cancer, visit NCI.

Enhancing Ovarian Cancer Treatment with Plant Compounds

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One of the big challenges in cancer treatment is resistance, when cells never react or stop reacting to a chemotherapy drug’s lethal effects. For ovarian cancer, resistance can occur with the commonly-used drug cisplatin.

The phytochemicals found in plant foods may help, a new study suggests. The study is preliminary, conducted on cancer cells, yet it suggests that a phytochemical called kaempferol may help this ovarian treatment be more effective.

Kaempferol is a flavonoid, one of the largest groups of phytochemicals and studied previously for its role in protecting against cancer. It’s found in many plant-foods, including berries, tea, and broccoli.

You can read the study here.

AICR has funded many studies on the effects of dietary components on cancer treatments: We featured a couple of them on breast cancer treatment in this months eNews.