High-Dose Beta-Carotene Supplements May Increase Survival in Patients Treated for Head and Neck Cancers

BACKGROUND: Patients with head and neck cancers who have been successfully treated with surgery and/or radiation therapy typically have a 60 to 90 percent five-year survival rate, depending on the specific location of the cancer. Retinoids, including the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, have shown success in interrupting the carcinogenic process in the head and neck tracts. Researchers tested whether beta-carotene could reduce the incidence of second tumors, known to increase illness and death, and improve long-term survival in patients who had been treated for head or neck cancer.

RESEARCH: After undergoing conventional treatment for head and neck cancer,
214 patients were enrolled in a double-blind clinical trial to determine whether beta-carotene supplements would improve long-term survival. One hundred four patients were given beta-carotene supplements and 110 patients received no treatments for three years. The dosage of beta-carotene was 75 mg daily for cycles of three months, with a supplement-free month between each cycle.

RESULTS: Beta-carotene supplements had no effect on progression of head and neck cancers or incidence of subsequent (secondary) head and neck cancers.

However, none of the 61 patients who took beta-carotene supplements for the full three years developed additional head and neck tumors. In addition, over an average of five years of follow up, and a maximum of ten years, patients taking beta-carotene had a 40 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 16 percent lower risk of death from cancer, but these differences were not statistically significant.

IMPLICATIONS: The researchers wrote that "Our results might support the hypothesis that an adequate beta-carotene treatment could be potentially associated with a decreased risk of death in these patients..."

Toma A, Bonelli L, Sartoris A, et al. Beta-carotene supplementation in patients radically treated for stage I-II head and neck cancer: results of a randomized trial. Oncology Reports, 2003;10:1895-1901.

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