The Vitamin C Cancer Study That Started It All

Image Credit: Marcelo Leal / Unsplash. This image has been modified.

In 1975, a remarkable case was reported of a 42-year-old man suffering from a malignant form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma who experienced a dramatic regression of the cancer after being given large doses of vitamin C intravenously, as I discuss in my video Intravenous Vitamin C for Terminal Cancer Patients. He seemed cured, so they stopped the vitamin C. The cancer came surging back. They restarted the vitamin C and apparently induced a second complete remission. Sometimes cancer does just spontaneously regress—it’s rare, but not unheard of. So, one could argue that the first remission was spontaneous, and it was just a coincidence that it happened when they started the vitamin C. However, given the trajectory the cancer was on, followed by the rapid remission, followed by the relapse when the vitamin C was stopped, followed by a second remission once restarted, the case strongly suggests that the vitamin C had something to do with the cancer’s remission.

Now, multiple spontaneous regressions do exist. There was a recent case, for example, of a woman with cervical cancer who appeared to be cured with radiation and chemo. Her cancer came back and she refused further treatment. Yet, the tumors disappeared on their own, then came back, then disappeared, then came back, then disappeared, then came back, and then disappeared for a fourth spontaneous remission—and all that was with no apparent treatment at all. So, it’s possible this vitamin-C case is just a crazy, coincidental fluke, and the vitamin C didn’t help at all. You never know until you put it to the test.

Researchers enlisted the help of Linus Pauling, who they considered the greatest chemist of the 20th century and who was known to be interested in vitamin C. If he couldn’t get funding, nobody could get funding. And he couldn’t get funding. They went to the National Cancer Institute with promising data on the first 40 cancer patients they had treated with vitamin C and asked that the institute carry out or fund a randomized double-blind trial. In this type of trial, they would take a group of incurable cancer patients for whom medicine has nothing more to offer, randomly split them into two groups, and infuse one group with vitamin C and the other group with something like saline, basically water, and then see who lives the longest. Neither the patients nor the doctors would know who got the vitamin C and who got the saline to eliminate bias and placebo effects. The researchers and Pauling went back year after year after year asking for grants to study it themselves if the National Cancer Institute wasn’t going to do it, and they got rejected year after year after year. So, they scraped up whatever funds they could find and did their best with what they had. They published their findings in 1976.

The researchers didn’t have a controlled trial, but, by that point, they had treated a hundred terminal cancer patients with vitamin C. So, they compared their progress to that of a thousand similar patients who did not get vitamin C. For each patient treated with vitamin C, the researchers found ten patients about the same age and with the same kind of cancer who had been treated at the same hospital but who had not received the vitamin C infusions. What did they find? In patients with terminal breast cancer, within a hundred days, more than 80 percent of the women in the control group were dead. (Remember, these were all terminal cancer patients.) However, in the vitamin C group, half were still alive nearly a year later. The vitamin-C group had women with terminal breast cancer still alive 2,270 days later and counting.

The control groups for all the different cancers studied did predictably poorly, with the vast majority dead within 100 to 200 days, while the vitamin C-treated patients appeared to do substantially better. All in all, the average survival time was four times as great for the vitamin C subjects—more than 200 days compared to only 50 days for the control patients. The results, the researchers concluded, “clearly indicate that this simple and safe form of medication is of definite value in the treatment of patients with advanced cancer.” So, what happened after the study was published back in 1976?

Critics understandably attacked the study for using after-the-fact controls. One can see how this could introduce bias. If researchers consciously or unconsciously chose control group patients who were sicker than the treatment group patients, the control group patients would die sooner than the treatment group patients, but it would have nothing to do with the treatment; the control group folks may have just started out in a worse place. Indeed, there is evidence that is what happened: A full 20 percent of the control group died within a few days after being declared terminal compared to none in the treatment group, which really does seem fishy. Nevertheless, the trial was successful in finally convincing the National Cancer Institute to fund randomized controlled trials—performed by the prestigious Mayo Clinic, no less. What did they find? Find out in Vitamin C Supplements for Terminal Cancer Patients and The Role of Vitamin C in the Treatment of Terminal Cancer.

I have tons of videos on cancer, but here’s a sampling:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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