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Antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids (compounds that give vegetables and fruits their colors), and many phytochemicals (plant-based chemicals). They help prevent damage to cells in the body from chemical reactions with oxygen. Because this damage may play a role in cancer development, it has long been thought that antioxidants may help prevent cancer. Studies suggest that people who eat more vegetables and fruits, which are rich sources of antioxidants, may have a lower risk for some types of cancer. Because cancer survivors may be at increased risk for second cancers, they should eat a variety of antioxidant-rich foods each day. So far, studies of antioxidant vitamin or mineral supplements have not found that they reduce cancer risk. The best advice at this time is to get antioxidants through foods rather than supplements.

Is it safe to take antioxidant supplements during cancer treatment?

Many dietary supplements contain levels of antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E) that are much greater than those recommended in the Dietary Reference Intakes for optimal health. At this time, many cancer doctors advise against taking higher doses of antioxidant supplements during chemotherapy or radiation. There is a concern that the antioxidants might repair the damage to cancer cells that helps these cancer treatments work. But others have noted that the possible harm from antioxidants is only in theory. They believe that there may be a net benefit in helping to protect normal cells from damage caused by these cancer treatments.

Whether antioxidants or other supplements are helpful or harmful during chemotherapy or radiation treatment is a major question without a clear science-based answer right now. Until more evidence is available, it is best for cancer survivors getting these treatments to avoid dietary supplements that give more than 100% of the Daily Value for antioxidants.