In a world where we’re frequently being advised to take our vitamin supplements, a recent scientific study has produced results that are interesting and confusing at the same time, at least for women with breast cancer. It suggests that some vitamin supplements may be detrimental to women who have survived breast cancer.

The Antioxidant Study
Scientists at New York’s Columbia University investigated 2,300 women with early stage breast cancer for five years. They found some opposing results for different types of vitamin supplements:

  • Vitamins C and E: They discovered that those taking regular supplements of vitamins C or E had a reduced risk of the cancer recurring within 5 years, compared to women who did not take them.
  • Carotenoids: Women who regularly supplemented with carotenoids (vitamin A, beta-carotene, and lutein), however, had a higher risk of dying from recurrent breast cancer than those who did not take them. Interestingly this seems to echo a previous report of a higher risk of lung cancer in smokers taking beta-carotene supplements.
  • Multivitamins: There was no link between breast cancer recurrence or death associated with antioxidants taken within multivitamins.

Dr. Heather Greenlee who led the study commented: “My main take home message here is that we’re seeing antioxidant supplements working in one direction and the carotenoids working in another.” She did, however, also stress that it’s still unclear why vitamins C and E might have beneficial effects for cancer survivors – if in fact they actually do.

Although vitamins C and E have antioxidant properties that help to protect cells from injury, Greenlee remarked that the women taking these supplements could have practised other healthy behaviors in general that contributed to improved survival. So the benefit might not have been due simply to taking these supplements.

While this research does not prove that carotenoids are harmful to cancer patients, it does raise some concern about them. And this highlights the fact that we should be more thoughtful about the supplements we take. Many people believe we have become a pill-popping nation of people who consider vitamins to be beneficial without really paying any thought as to what they are taking in. 


Breast Cancer Awareness
Remember that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so if you haven’t already done so, please consider 
speaking to your doctor about screening, or even persuade a loved one to seek advice about it. 

Feel like helping others? If you literally have $2 to spare (or more!), please consider donating to the Susan G. Komen “3 Day For The Cure” – Cathy Miller is about to embark upon her 8th of these walks in the fight against cancer.  She still needs a wee bit more by way of donations to allow her to undertake the walk, so dig around under the sofa or in that old never-used-teapot! Any spare few dollars that you can find will be massively welcomed! Visit her page to make a small donation today. Your few dollars will make a world of difference.


Greenlee H, Kwan ML, Kushi LH, Song J, Castillo A, Weltzien E, Queensberry CP Jr, Caan BJ: Antioxidant supplement use after breast cancer diagnosis and mortality in the Life After Cancer Epidemiology (LACE) cohort. Cancer (2011) Sept 27 [Epub ahead of print]

Image Credit Kittikun Atsawintarangkul @FreeDigitalPhotos


  1. I have about 12 pills I take a day for my headaches and arthritis (all non-prescription). Then there’s the tons of calcium us females must take, multi-V.I can’t take them on an empty stomach and I don’t eat until noon. It’s quite a race to try to get them all down before bedtime.

    • Jacqui, it sounds like you have quite a schedule there! I know how you feel though, sometimes just my multivitamins/minerals, and calcium supplements can be challenging enough for me!

  2. Interesting! There seems to be quite a bit of controversy about vitamin A/retinol/beta carotene in cancer. I wonder if there’s a difference related to timing, dose, route of administration, all of the above…

    • I know, Erin, it seems that every new article throws some wrench into the works. It would be interesting to know any potential role of timing, dose etc, though, I agree. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have some role to play.