Antioxidants are substances that some people believe might protect cells from becoming cancerous by stabilizing unstable molecules, known as free radicals, that are thought to contribute to illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Various studies have centered on this relationship between antioxidants and cancer, and these studies have produced varied results. The disparity between the conclusions has led some people within the scientific community to question the efficacy of using antioxidant supplementation when attempting to combat or prevent cancer.
Within the body, antioxidants act as a defense against the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable, so they can damage cells, proteins and other genetic materials, such as DNA, thus leading to many health-related problems. Enzymes, which are proteins within the body, are known to contain antioxidants, as do nutrients such as vitamins A, C and E, selenium and beta carotene. During some studies, these nutrients have been given to patients to explore the relationship between antioxidants and cancer.
During the 1990s, cancer prevention research examined the effects of a combination of antioxidants given to healthy men and women who were considered to be at significant risk of developing gastric cancer. The results suggested that antioxidant supplementation significantly reduced the probability of gastric and other cancers. Consequently, a link between antioxidants and cancer prevention was established.
By contrast, other research conducted on male smokers during the mid-1990s showed that lung cancer rates increased significantly with beta carotene supplementation. Vitamin E supplementation was found to have neither a harmful nor beneficial affect on the sample group. As a result, the relationship between antioxidants and cancer prevention became questionable, and clinical trials have since attempted to further analyze and evaluate this relationship.
Many breast cancer sufferers believe that by taking antioxidant supplements, they will be protected from recurring tumors and that the side effects of breast cancer treatment might be alleviated. Some oncologists, however, believe that women who are receiving some chemotherapy medicines and radiation treatment should avoid using these supplements during treatments as they might have an adverse affect on the outcomes. Radiation treatment and some chemotherapy medicines work by helping to produce free radicals that can attack cancerous cells. Antioxidants are known to destroy free radicals, so it is the opinion of some people in the medical profession that supplementation can interfere with treatment.