Doctors have long suspected that healthy vitamin D levels may help combat cancer. Now, a new study finds that people with higher levels of vitamin D who are diagnosed with cancer tend to have better survival rates — especially those diagnosed with breast cancer, colon cancer or lymphoma. They also typically remain in remission longer than patients who are vitamin D-deficient.
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Researchers found links between healthy vitamin D levels and better outcomes for certain types of cancer, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer and lymphoma. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism published the study in the spring.
However, hematologist/oncologist Thomas Samuel, MD, who practices at Cleveland Clinic Florida, Weston, says the jury is still out. “There’s no one study that has definitely proven that vitamin D levels positively impact cancer patients or survivors from a treatment standpoint,” he says.
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What is vitamin D’s role?
Your body naturally produces vitamin D. The body absorbs it from sunlight and certain foods. It then contributes to absorbing the calcium and phosphorus we need to have healthy bones.
Vitamin D also affects different biological processes by binding to the vitamin D receptors. These are proteins that are present in just about every cell in our bodies. We establish our body’s absorption pattern of those receptors for bone development in the first 20 to 30 years of our lives.
The search continues for definitive link
Dr. Samuel says that back in the 1940s and ‘50s, researchers studied whether residents of higher altitudes were at greater risk of cancer because of less exposure to vitamin D from the sun and thus less conversion of vitamin D through their skin. The studies also looked at whether there was any impact on outcomes once a person had cancer.
These studies were inconclusive. However, they did bring about further studies of the relationship between vitamin D and cancer. According to Dr. Samuel, researchers began to see that vitamin D, at least in the lab, had significant effects on cancer cells.
“In the studies, it appears that patients whose cells are deficient in vitamin D receptors have higher cancer growth rates and are susceptible to high-risk cancers,” he says. “So, they started doing studies to see if vitamin D supplementation could affect cancer outcomes, and so far, they’ve been a mixed bag of results.”
On the safe side: Keep vitamin D levels up
There is still no consensus within the oncology field on the exact merits of vitamin D. Dr. Samuel takes a safe approach with his patients that is also a good one for you to follow. He checks their vitamin D levels before, during and after treatment. And he makes sure that they keep their levels up.
In addition to whatever impact it may have on cancer, vitamin D has other positive effects on our bodies. It helps maintain good bone health. It also improves bone mineral density in patients to help prevent osteoporosis and osteopenia.
Regular screenings are still the key to cancer prevention
Dr. Samuel also recommends that while healthy levels of vitamin D are worth maintaining with some reasonable exposure to sunlight and a diet that includes dairy products, it is not the be-all and end-all of cancer prevention or care.
So, making sure you get regular screenings, for example, whether a mammogram for breast cancer or colonoscopy for colon cancer and so on, is far more important.