You’ve heard about intravenous therapy (drip therapy) to deliver medication, but could high-dose intravenous (IV) infusion of something as ubiquitous as vitamin C slow or cure cancer? Decades of research and several peer-reviewed studies show promising results and possible benefits of high doses of vitamin C.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is Vitamin C and why do orange juice commercials tell me I need it?
Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid or ascorbate) functions mainly as an antioxidant, and serves various roles in the human body including Vitamin E synthesis, iron absorption, and the production of collagen.1 Humans are one of the few species who cannot produce the vitamin internally, and therefore vitamin C must be a daily part of our diets.2
Without enough vitamin C, the body is unable to continue business as usual: Scurvy and anemia are common symptoms after several months of low to no vitamin C intake. Scurvy, characterized by lethargy, bleeding of the gums, and jaundice,3 was a major cause of death for centuries – up to 90% of the crew on long voyages in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries died from scurvy.4
A healthy adult male or female needs at least 35-40mg of vitamin C a day for optimum wound healing and collagen synthesis, and current United States tolerable upper intake level for vitamin C is around 2000mg/ day.5 Any excess of the vitamin is excreted through urine. Toxicity is rare, as absorption via consumption is limited by your intestines.4
IV infusion of vitamin C bypasses the normal route of absorption through the intestines. Blood concentration of vitamin C can therefore reach higher levels, which has been shown through laboratory studies, animal models, and human trials to have anti-carcinogenic properties.2
Introduction to antioxidants
What does an antioxidant do?
An antioxidant protects the cells of the body from becoming damaged by free radicals. Cancer can develop due to free radical damage, and antioxidants can halt or abate this cellular damage by functioning as free-radical scavengers. This protection system includes enzymes and antioxidants obtained from the diet (e.g. vitamins C and E, flavonoids, and beta-carotene).4
Dietary antioxidants could be described as “chemical quenchers.”6 Vitamin C is part of a sequence that functions to mop up free radicals.
Free radicals? I’ll take two!
Free radicals are formed as a natural by-product of cell metabolism. They are absolutely essential for survival. However, if left unchecked, they can disrupt cellular function or structure. Free radicals can ravage most organ systems of the body, from your head (stroke and dementia are associated with free radical damage to the brain) to your toes (rheumatoid arthritis). The end result is cellular damage, aging, and death.7
Despite the name sounding like a heavy metal band from the 70s, free radicals are atoms or molecules containing one or more unpaired electrons .8 They are highly unstable and can arise from:
- Oxidative (aerobic) metabolism
- Inflammation/ infection
- Pollutants/ toxins
- Oxidized (rancid) fat
Antioxidants terminate the chain reaction by donating an electron to the free radical in order to stabilize it. Eagle-eyed observers will notice that now the antioxidant has an unpaired electron. However, antioxidants by nature can stabilize themselves with an extra electron along for the ride. Many are
regenerative and cooperate together to ensure optimum stability.8
The take home message is that electrons hate being unpaired. This imbalance means they are unstable and highly reactive. A free radical will seek out (or donate) an electron to restore the pairing and stabilize itself, starting a chain reaction.9 Without antioxidants, free radicals can rip off electrons from our cellular walls or compromise a cell’s DNA, which destroys the cell. In an article in Experience Life Magazine, Guthrie quotes Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, coauthor of The Definitive Guide to Cancer, “ almost every chronic illness known to humankind has been linked in some measure to free-radical-induced tissue damage.”10
Free radicals and cancer
Free radicals, whether from normal everyday existence or external exposure (from X-rays, cigarette smoking,
and industrial chemicals, for example) are cumulative.8 If free radicals outnumber antioxidants, oxidative stress occurs.
Over time, free radical damage builds up and brings about detrimental changes to the body. Many cancers, including the initiation, promotion, and progression
of them, are considered a manifestation of oxidative damage, as are the side effects of chemotherapy and
Vitamin C versus the big C
Research into a link between vitamin C and cancer treatment began nearly 40 years ago, after several epidemiological studies demonstrated an inverse relationship between a diet high in fruits and vegetables and cancer risk.12 Two years later, they postulated that 1000mg of vitamin C per day extended the survival time of terminal cancer patients by nearly a year compared to a similar control group.13 These effects were reproduced in other studies.14,15 Also, IV vitamin C therapy seemed to mitigate some of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, which opened up a new discussion on the role of nutrition in cancer treatment.16
However, rarely is anything concerning human medicine cut and dry. Fruits and vegetables provide an abundance of nutrients to our systems besides vitamin C, and several subsequent double-blind studies performed by the Mayo Clinic found that high-dose vitamin C was no more successful at treating cancer or prolonging life than a placebo.17 Worse yet, case studies have cropped up exhibiting a link between high-dose vitamin C treatment and kidney damage to patients with preexisting renal issues and specific genetic mutations.18,19 The mechanisms behind the effectiveness of vitamin C on cancer are still not well understood, and this uncertainty seems to form the basis of the controversy.20,21 One simple reason high-dose vitamin C is effective for cancer treatment is that vitamin C deficiency in cancer patients is a relatively common occurrence that is often not taken into consideration during treatment.20
Several vitamin C IV infusion studies have recently been carried out specifically looking at quantifiable health-related quality of life (QOL) improvement in cancer patients, both undergoing traditional treatment and palliative care. Vitamin C has been shown to reduce pain in terminal cancer patients,16 decrease fatigue due to chemotherapy,22 and reduce biomarkers associated with chemotherapy-related toxicity.23 Because vitamin C is considered a supplement, high-dose IV infusion of vitamin C can be done by a medical professional for a moderate cost ($125-160). Infusions are generally performed twice a week until the patient is in remission for a year.24 High-dose vitamin C is not yet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved for cancer treatment,2 and insurance companies generally will not cover the treatment.24
Cancer can be a debilitating disease not only because of the tumors themselves but also due to the treatment generally used to treat it. One of the ways cancer can arise is through oxidative damage made by free radical formation from our lifestyle and environment. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can remove free radicals, and eventually lead to less oxidative damage. IV infusion of vitamin C can raise blood concentrations higher than possible with oral dosage, and such high concentrations have generally had a positive effect on cancer treatment and QOL. Further research is needed in this area, as any safe alternative or addition to treatment that can improve outcomes and alleviate symptoms for cancer patients is of the upmost importance.
 Michaels, A., Frei, B., Caudill, M., and Rogers, M. (2012) Biochemical, Physiological, and Molecular Aspects of Human Nutrition. Philadelphia: Saunders.
 National Institute of Health (2015) High-Dose Vitamin C (PDQ®) [online]. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/vitamin-c-pdq/#section/_3 [Accessed 25 May 2015].
 Goebel, L., Buckler, B., Driscoll, H., Elston, D., Laumann, A., Minocha, J., Perry, V., Schwarzenberger, K., and Wong, J. (2013) Scurvy [online]. Available at: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/125350-overview [Accessed 21 May 2015].
 Gibney, M., Lanham-New, S., Cassidy, A., and Vorster, H. (2009) Introduction to Human Nutrition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
 Institute of Medicine. (2015) Dietary Reference Intakes Tables and Application [online]. Available at: http://www.iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/DRI-Tables.aspx [Accessed 22 May 2015].
 Mangge, H., Becker, K., Fuchs, D., and Gostner, J. (2014) Antioxidants, inflammation and cardiovascular disease. World J Cardiol. 6(6): pp. 462-477.
 Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., and Chandra, N. (2010) Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev. 4(8): pp. 118-126.
 Rice University (1996) Antioxidants and Free Radicals [online]. Available at: http://www.rice.edu/~jenky/sports/antiox.html [Accessed 28 May 2015].
 Cheeseman, K. and Slater, T. (1993) An introduction to free radicals chemistry. Br Med Bull. 49(1): pp. 481-493.
 Guthrie, C. (2015) Glutathione: The Great Protector. Experience Life. May, p.40.
 Rao, A., Bharani, M., and Pallavi, V. (2006) Role of antioxidants and free radicals in health and disease. Adv Pharmacol Toxicol. 7(1): pp. 29-38.
 Padayatty, S., Katz, A., Wang, Y., Kwon, O., Lee, J., Chen, S., Corpe, C., Dutta, A., Dutta, S., and Levine, M. (2003) Vitamin C as an antioxidant: evaluation of its role in disease prevention. J Am Coll Nutr. 22(1): pp. 18-35.
 Cameron, E. and Pauling, L. (1978) Supplemental ascorbate in the supportive treatment of cancer: Reevaluation of prolongation of survival times in terminal human cancer. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 75(9): pp. 4538-4542.
 Murata, A., Morishige, F., and Yamaguchi, H. (1982) Prolongation of survival times of terminal cancer patients by administration of large doses of ascorbate. Int J Citam Nutr Res Suppl. 23(1): pp. 103-113.
 Newbold, H. (1979) Vitamin C against cancer. [online]. Available at: http://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=US8051282 [Accessed 26 May 2015].
 Carr, A., Vissers, M., and Cook, J. (2014) The Effect of intravenous vitamin C on cancer- and chemotherapy-related fatigue and quality of life. Front Oncol. 4(1): pp. 283.
 Creagan, E., Moertel, C., O’Fallon, J., Schutt, A., O’Connell, M., Rubin, J., and Frytak, S. (1979) Failure of high-dose vitamin C (ascorbic acid) therapy to benefit patients with advanced cancer. A controlled trial. N Engl J Med. 301(13): pp. 687-690.
 McAllister, C., Scowden, E., Dewberry, L., and Richman, A. (1984) Renal Failure Secondary to Massive Infusion of Vitamin C. JAMA. 252(13): pp. 1684.
 Lawton, J., Conway, L., Crosson, J., Smith, C., and Abraham, P. (1985) Acute oxalate nephropathy after massive ascorbic acid administration. Arch Intern Med. 145(5): pp. 950-951.
 Mayland, C., Bennett, M., and Allan, K. (2005) Vitamin C deficiency in cancer patients. Palliat Med. 19(1): pp. 17-20.
 Du, J., Cullen, J., and Buettner, G. (2012) Ascorbic acid: chemistry, biology and the treatment of cancer. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1826(2): pp. 443-457.
 Vollbracht, C., Schneider, B., Leendert, V., Weiss, G., Auerbach, L., and Beuth, J. (2011) Intravenous vitamin C administration improves quality of life in breast cancer patients during chemo-/radiotherapy and aftercare: results of a retrospective, multicentre, epidemiological cohort study in Germany. In vivo. 25(6): pp. 983-990.
 Ma, Y., Chapman, J., Levine, M., Polireddy, K., Drisko, J., and Chen, Q. (2014) High-dose parenteral ascorbate enhanced chemosensitivity of ovarian cancer and reduced toxicity of chemotherapy. Sci Transl Med. 6(222): pp. 222ra18.
 The University of Kansas Hospital (2015) IV Vitamin C FAQ [online]. Available at: http://www.kumed.com/medical-services/integrative-medicine/faq/iv-vitamin-c-faq.