Intravenous vitamin C (IVC) is a popular therapy for the treatment of cancer and its side effects. In the 1970s, Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling developed a protocol for using vitamin C with cancer patients, and noticed that there was a positive effect on survival in terminal cancer patients. Over 40 years later, IVC is widely used in cancer centres and private clinics all over the world, and research interest has been renewed in this potentially very important therapy.
Despite the readily available information on IVC, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about how it works, and this misunderstanding could result in many patients not utilizing a very safe, tolerable and potentially impactful treatment. Let’s review exactly how vitamin C works for cancer, and work towards dispelling the myths of this essential nutrient.
Myth: IVC is an Anti-oxidant, and Interferes with Chemotherapy and Radiation
The purpose of research is to discover how something works, and then replicate the findings of other researchers to confirm their data. Study after study after study have come to the conclusion that when vitamin C is delivered in ultra high doses intravenously, it behaves as a pro-oxidant, not an anti-oxidant. This means that vitamin C metabolizes to create reactive oxygen species – in other words, free radicals – that have toxic effects to cancer cells. Therefore, intravenous vitamin C does not act as an anti-oxidant, and would not interfere with drugs that are oxidative, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
This is why we find in the overwhelming majority of studies that when high dose IVC is combined with chemotherapy and/or radiation, tumours shrink to a greater degree compared to using either treatment alone. I’ll say that again – using intravenous vitamin C concurrently with chemo-radiotherapy appears to treat cancer more effectively than using these treatments alone. This is likely because, in part, it is like throwing gas on a fire – the extra production of free radicals created from the vitamin C adds to the free radicals produced by chemotherapy or radiation, and ultimately helps them to work better (Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2008;105(32):11105-9).
Vitamin C has been combined with carboplatin, paclitaxel, gemcitabine, erlotinib, and temozolomide (just to name a few), and has also combined with radiotherapy. In both pre-clinical and human phase I/II studies, toxicity is reduced from conventional treatments, and vitamin C does not appear to affect how well these agents work. Interestingly, increased survival in both human and animal models have been observed (Ma et al, 2014). If high dose vitamin C interfered with chemotherapy and radiation, we would expect survival rates to be lower.
Take Away: Intravenous vitamin C behaves as a pro-oxidant, not an antioxidant in human studies. In patients who receive high dose IVC as part of their cancer treatment, side effects are prevented, quality of life is maintained or improved, and trends towards increased survival are being seen.
Myth: IVC is an Unnecessary Treatment for Cancer Patients
Many studies have shown that people with cancer have lower vitamin C than healthy controls, sometimes with vitamin C being so deficient it can lead to scurvy-like symptoms (Oak et al, 2016). Severity of one’s disease also correlates to lower vitamin C levels. Higher burden of disease has been found in lymphoma patients who had low vitamin C levels (Shenoy et al, 2017), and women with more aggressive cervical and breast cancers have been found to be low in vitamin C (Khanzode et al, 2004). Lower vitamin C levels have also been found in patients with more aggressive colorectal and endometrial cancers (Kuiper et al, 2014).
People with cancer have also been found to have higher levels of inflammation in their body, which can occur as a result of the disease process itself, as well as from chemotherapy/radiation. Inflammation is a direct contributor to all sorts of symptoms and side effects, such as pain, fatigue, insomnia, and impaired memory and concentration. Inflammation is also directly related to late stage side effects, such as cardiotoxicity (heart damage). Vitamin C directly lowers inflammation, and this is why studies have shown that patients who regularly receive high dose IVC as part of their care have less side effects (Carr et al, 2017).
Therefore, because people with cancer have lower vitamin C, vitamin C reduces side effects from chemotherapy and radiation, and because it has been found that vitamin C creates free radicals that are toxic to cancer cells, I would argue that intravenous vitamin C is an absolutely necessary treatment for those fighting and recovering from cancer and its treatment.
Myth: Vitamin C Can Be Taken Orally to Have the Same Effect
Much of the early controversy surrounding high dose intravenous vitamin C was due to misunderstandings about the differences in how vitamin C is absorbed by mouth, or by IV. When taken orally, there is ultimately a maximum amount the digestive system can absorb, and the blood concentrations of vitamin C max out around 200 umol/L. When delivered intravenously, vitamin C completely bypasses the digestive system, and there is no maximum that can be delivered. Peak blood concentrations of intravenously delivered vitamin C reach 20-30 mmol/L, which 200-300 times higher than oral intake.
For vitamin C to have the pro-oxidant effect where it metabolizes to create free radicals, it must be in ultra high doses. Therefore, for vitamin C to have the physiological effects we desire for people with cancer, it must be delivered intravenously.
What You Should Know
If you are someone battling cancer, or trying desperately to recover and get your life back after cancer, intravenous vitamin C can be a very effective treatment to help both you and your disease. An overwhelming majority of the research published on vitamin C points to the beneficial effects it has on quality of life, and even though human research is in the early stages, survival may be increased as well, which is particularly relevant to those with advanced or aggressive types of cancer.
Clinical experience, both in my own private practice as well as those of my colleagues, can attest to the numerous statements from cancer patients. IVC can help reduce pain, improve sleep and energy, as well as improve mood and well being. Many patients also experience long term stability, and some even see their tumours heal or shrink. If you are not convinced from this blog post, see a great recent review on the topic attached here.
Contact me today to answer all of the questions you may have about this important therapy.