Natural Support for Chemotherapy and Radiation

by Dr. Paul Hrkal ND | Follow on Twitter

What are the PROs and CONs for chemo and radiation as part of a natural cancer treatment plan?

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THE CURRENT MEDICAL SYSTEM is an excellent acute or emergency healthcare system.

Unfortunately it is not set up to successfully prevent and treat chronic disease such as cancer. While chemo and radiation are extremely toxic therapies they definitely do have a place in the treatment of some cancers.

For example, leukemia, lymphoma and testicular cancer have a very good response to chemotherapy however the success rate is much lower for solid tumours such as colon or breast cancer. Some new-targeted chemotherapies have very promising effects in stop cancer growth and manage the disease but eventually the cancer cells become resistant to these drugs as well.

I look at chemotherapy, radiation and surgery as ways to buy the patient some time.

These therapies can shrink tumours and stop cancer growth temporarily so the patient doesn’t die from those complications (like a tumours pressing on an organ) but they never eliminate all cancer cells.

The fundamental problem is that none of these therapies address the root cause of cancer.

While there are many potential cancer triggers, well established evidence tells us that substances that damage our cellular DNA and promote abnormal cell growth (i.e. UV radiation, smoking, synthetic hormones, etc.) can lead to cancer development.

Unfortunately chemo and radiation do nothing to change these factors and actually strongly contribute to them.

Chemotherapy and radiation all have short and long term side effects, which severely impair the body’s ability to heal. Over and above the specific acute side effects —

  • nausea
  • mouth sores
  • skin burns
  • organ damage, etc.

— they also impair the immune system, which is responsible for killing the remaining cancer cells once the chemo or radiation is done.

The long-term side effects of both chemotherapy and radiation are secondary cancers since both these therapies cause damage to healthy cells, which can lead to metastatic changes [2].  Again this is where an integrative approach is so beneficial.

When natural therapies are used during and after chemo and radiation they can be very effective at reducing both the short and long term side effects. This also is where natural therapies are so valuable because they help stimulate the body’s ability to destroy the remaining cancer cells.

Are natural and integrative cancer therapies compatible with conventional treatment options?

“Why is my oncologist still against all natural antioxidants?”

There is a large assumption by the public and medical profession that natural and conventional treatments are incompatible.

The reality is that the research shows us nothing is further from the truth. Some of the most cutting edge and progressive cancer treatment centres all over the world are now using natural and integrative treatments right along with conventional therapies.

Numerous studies have shown that natural agents actually improve the treatment outcomes and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. An excellent review highlighting the safety of antioxidants with chemotherapy was published in 2008 [1].

It showed that not only were antioxidant nutrients safe and did not negatively impact the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatments, they actually improved effectiveness and reduced side effects [1].  Another review found that vitamin C, one of the most commonly used natural therapies, to be safe with the majority of chemotherapy drugs and it improve quality of life and reduce side effects by preventing damage to healthy cells [5, 6].

Unfortunately many oncologists are still holding on to the outdated concept that chemo and radiation have a “PRO-oxidant” effect, which would be undermined by the consumption of “ANTI-oxidants.”

The mechanisms of chemotherapy and radiation are actually poorly understood but recent evidence shows that they may not directly kill the cancer cells immediately but rather fatally damage them before they undergo natural apoptosis (cell death) [4].

Antioxidants and natural plant compounds, such as curcumin (from the herb turmeric), actually may help finish the job and promote the death of cancer cells thus having a complementary effect to chemo and radiation instead of working against it [3].

However, it is very important to point out that not all natural substances are safe to take along side conventional treatments.

There are exceptions depending on the type of chemotherapy or radiation, type of cancer and the condition of each patient.

If Studies Show Natural Therapies Are Safe With Chemo And Radiation Why do Most Oncologists Still Say to Avoid Nutrients, Herbs And Antioxidants?

What can you do if your oncologist is against any natural treatments but you still want to include some natural therapies as part of your treatment plan?

While the number of open-minded oncologists is growing, unfortunately there are still many that are totally against any natural therapies while on chemo or radiation.

The process of cancer diagnosis and treatment is very frightening and often starts quickly with very little time for the patient to think about the options presented to them. Many patients feel they are given little choice by an oncologist that is pushing to start treatment quickly while totally against any natural therapies.

While I can’t answer this question for you there are a few suggestions that other people have found helpful.

  1. Don’t rush into a decision. You may feel like you have no choice but you always do. Unless it’s a medical emergency, waiting a few days or even weeks to make the right decision won’t impact the success of your therapy.
  2. Ask lots of questions. If you don’t like what the oncologist has to say don’t be afraid to ask direct questions and maybe even seek a second opinion.

Ultimately, this is a difficult question to answer since it’s really up to what you as a patient are comfortable with but don’t feel like a doctor should make your decision for you.

A Naturopathic doctor can help you understand the research and know which specific supplements and therapies actually complement your conventional care and which ones should be avoided due to interactions.

Cancer Diets

The most popular cancer diets include:

  • the Gerson diet
  • the budwig diet
  • the raw-vegan diet
  • the ketogenic/paleo diet
  • the Mediterranean diet

As with all these therapeutic approaches there is a large variation in how each person responds. Each person’s condition is also very unique making some diets inappropriate for them.

For example a person with weak digestion will not do well on a raw food diet.

Also many of these diets are very time-intensive to prepare so many people can’t maintain the effort for very long. For this reason I don’t support any one of the strict diets mentioned above but I tailor my approach for each patient into manageable steps. While each diet is unique almost all of them follow a few principles that I believe are essential to any anti-cancer diet.

  • No processed food – Make your own food so you know exactly what’s in it. For example that means you make your own salad dressing instead of buying it.
  • Eat more veggies and less meat – Most meat contains unhealthy fats and toxins, which promote inflammation. Replace that meat with colourful veggies.
  • Eat more raw veggies – I don’t support a 100% raw diet but most people don’t eat enough raw vegetables. They contain enzymes and nutrients that have a potent anti-cancer effect but they are destroyed when cooked.
  • Juice – Juicing veggies is a great way to get ultra high doses of antioxidants condensed into one serving. It would also take longer to eat that same amount of veggies without compressing them into a juice.
  • No sugar or refined carbohydrates – It is well known that sugar drives inflammation and is the primary fuel for cancer cells. Carbs like bread and pasta also are rapidly converted to sugar, which promotes the growth of cancer.

So in summary,

  1. Despite conventional thought, natural therapies CAN be used in the same period as chemo and radiation. The mechanisms are synergistic in many cases.
  2. Natural therapies actually can improve the anti-cancer effect and prevent side-effects.
  3. There are certain natural therapies that should not be taken on the same day as your chemo or radiation.


  1. Block et al. Impact of antioxidant supplementation on chemotherapeutic toxicity: a systematic review of the evidence from randomized controlled trials. Int J Cancer. 2008 Sep 15;123(6):1227-39
  2. Ng AK, Travis LB. Subsequent malignant neoplasms in cancer survivors. Cancer J. 2008 Nov-Dec;14(6):429-34
  3. Patel BB, Majumdar AP. Synergistic role of curcumin with current therapeutics in colorectal cancer: minireview. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(6):842-6.
  4. Ricci MS, Zong WX. Chemotherapeutic approaches for targeting cell death pathways. Oncologist. 2006 Apr;11(4):342-57.
  5. Stephenson CM, Levin RD, Spector T, Lis CG. Phase I clinical trial to evaluate the safety, tolerability, and pharmacokinetics of high-dose intravenous ascorbic acid in patients with advanced cancer. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol. 2013 May 14
  6. Vollbracht et al. Intravenous vitamin C administration improves quality of life in breast cancer patients during chemo-/radiotherapy and aftercare: results of a retrospective, multicentre, epidemiological cohort study in Germany. In Vivo. 2011 Nov-Dec;25(6):983-90
About the Author
Dr. Paul Hrkal ND

Dr. Paul Hrkal is a board certified Naturopathic doctor. He is an expert in nutrition and supplemental treatments and has additional training and certification in intravenous and injection therapy. He has a special interest in brain health, neurological disorders, cancer, chronic pain and sports medicine. He also is strong advocate of integrative medicine and lectures across the country to both healthcare practitioners and public audiences. He currently practices in an integrative, multi-disciplinary pain clinic in Vaughan and Mississauga and also is a medical advisor with Advanced Orthomolecular Research.