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March 31st, 2010
01:15 PM ET

Can your multivitamin give you cancer?

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Somewhere in your house right now, you probably have a bottle of multivitamins. Millions of Americans take a daily multivitamin in hopes of thwarting future illnesses. But a new study with an alarming headline has been published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that may have some Americans thinking twice before popping their daily vitamin.

The study looked at data from 35,000 Swedish women, ages 49 to 83, who were cancer-free at the beginning of a 10-year period. A decade later, they found that older women who took a multivitamin were 19 percent more likely to develop breast cancer compared with women who didn't take a vitamin. That finding was true regardless of whether the women smoked or took postmenopausal homones over that 10-year period.

But before you throw out those vitamins, there are important caveats to this study that need to be mentioned. First, the study found only an association between multivitamins and breast cancer, not a cause and effect relationship. That means that of the women who eventually developed cancer, one common denominator was that most of them took a daily vitamin, not that their daily vitamin caused the disease. Plus, the study lumped all the women who take multivitamins into one entity and did not look at the women's data individually. That means it's impossible to pinpoint how one specific woman's cancer risk might be increased if she takes a multivitamin.

The National Institutes of Health have said that "some of the roughly 75 million Americans who buy [multivitamins and supplements] may not need them." But that's not to say there isn't any value in taking one. In fact, the NIH recommends multivitamins be taken by senior citizens, pregnant women or women who wish to become pregnant, people with nutrient depleting conditions or gastrointestinal disorders, and people on restricted diets. And within the medical community, many doctors advocate that all their patients to take a multivitamin, even if they don't meet the NIH's criteria.

"At the end of the day, it's always better to see someone taking a vitamin than not. The benefits outweigh the risks," advises Dr. Kent Holtorf, medical director of The Holtorf Medical Group, who was not affiliated with the study. "But the question is what do you want to accomplish by taking it."

Holtorf says patients need to speak with their doctor about what symptoms they're trying to treat by taking a multivitamin. That's especially true for patients who take a multivitamin but also eat fortified foods and beverages to bolster their health. Too much fortification can have major consequences. Depending on the vitamin you’re taking, side effects can range from diarrhea to liver damage.

"The bottom line is a patient is not a population," says Holtorf. "It's better to take a vitamin than nothing but your best bet is to find out if you're deficient in anything and then treat those deficiencies in an individualized way."

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Teriss

    You have to be joking right? This is pure unadulterated hogwash. So do you know who published the study and who paid for it? The Lancelot of course. The only pill that causes breast cancer are HRT drugs and they are made by pharmaceuticals and of course anti-depressants and there is a direct correlation between taking prescribed drugs and breast cancer. There isn't a single known vitamin that causes cancer and this information is not only misleading it is totally supported by the drug makers.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Christina Stortz

    There have been studies in Irish populations that reveal development of cancer due to iron fortification. Our bodies are complex mechanisms and we would be remiss to say that we fully understand what triggers cancer cells to grow and wreak havoc.

    March 31, 2010 at 17:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ellie Taylor

    Regardless, a vitamin pill is never a substitute for eating a variety of whole, healthy foods. Many nutrients in food have not yet been identified, but we know that nutrients in food work together synergistically for maximal absorption. Also – "more" is not always better when it comes to vitamins. Beginning research is showing DNA damage from toxic doses (not yet known with certainty). The best insurance is eating well, losing weight, and exercising. Sounds dull – but no vitamin can replace a life well lived!

    March 31, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Michael

    I worked for a vitamin company. There is no evidence that they do anything for you. Vitamins fall under a different category that makes it so you cannot state they actually do anything. The reason for this is that the pharmaceutical companies and medical industry do not want you taking vitamins to get healthy. They want you to buy their products that you have to take regularly and they never want you to get healthy, it is bad for business.

    Many vitamins are useless because they pass right through you or are made from dead/inert materials. The best vitamins are made from living materials.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. cancer researcher

    I don't think vitamin supplements will cause cancer but boy do they ever support it. Taking a multivitamin while having cancer is about the worst thing you can do. Multivitamins support growth: growth of kids, growth of developing fetuses and babies and growth of tumors. All of these things share the common practice of rapid and sustained growth. Folic acid is a big no-no for cancer patients, especially prostate cancer. Folic acid feeds prostate cancer directly. As cancerous processes develop in the body as we age or get exposed to toxins, a high vitamin environment can support emerging cancers and encourage them to grow or grow more quickly. It's like a high sugar vs. low sugar punch on the countertop: which will spoil fastest with bacterial growth? The one with lots of growth factor. As the article suggests, if you eat a balanced diet without other health problems, multivitamins probably aren't going to benefit you and may even hurt. Remember "everything in moderation"? That applies to vitamins and supplements too. Vitamin C and other antioxidants are good for normal health, inflammatory disease and cancer but again, don't go overboard. Antioxidants can be obtained seperately so you don't have to take the pro-growth vitamins too. It's time people realized "if some is good, more must be better" really isn't true.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Oliver Queen

    First of all @Teriss read the whole article.

    Secondly, the title of this article is so misleading, it's almost a blatant lie. Do you really need that much help getting traffic to your blog? The article goes on to say, BEYOND the ridiculous headline, that there's no cause between the multivitamin and cancer. In fact, it says MOST of the women who eventually developed cancer were taking vitamins, not all. That's not even a "relationship" as the study might suggest (if you're an imbecile).

    By the end of the artticle, it says that most doctors recommend a multivitamin to their patients and it quotes a doctor as saying "At the end of the day, it's always better to see someone taking a vitamin than not". So why the scary headline? Why the sensationalism?

    I hate you, CNN.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Anu Thadani

    Nothing beats getting all your daily nutrients from food – vitamins and other essentials are better absorbed and used by the body when they are in their natural form – in fruits and vegetables! People who live in "blue zones" or areas of the world that have the highest number of people living to over 100 – eat well – they do not pop pills – they cannot afford them. So lets follow their lead and eat healthy. Besides, it is a much more delicious way of acquiring vitamins than popping pills!

    March 31, 2010 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. cancer researcher

    I neglected to mention that all cancers share the property of hijacking your immune system such that your immune cells feed the tumor, make space for it to invade and help it colonize new body areas. Tumors find ways to evade your T cells so taking lots of vitamins to "strengthen your immune system" while having cancer is actually strengthening the cancer. People take cyclophosphamide specifically to knock back the immune system because the tumor(s) can't live or metastasize without it. Antioxidants actually knock back inflammatory action, the kind that helps tumors, so taking antioxidants is good for fighting cancer. Taking a multivitamin with pro-growth factors (like B vitamins: stay AWAY from all B vitamins during cancer) just makes the cancer and hijacked immune cells stronger. As always, ask your oncologist first about supplements. Supplements are drugs too and you don't want to sabotage your own treatment. Stay away from energy drinks.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Laura

    Gee, did any of the women tested live in the same community or region where they were exposed to the same water supply or air pollutants! As Teriss mentioned, did any of them take anti-depressants or other prescription drugs? Maybe THAT was the actual "common denominator". The article is pretty vague, which makes me think the study was as well. What a waste of time.

    March 31, 2010 at 18:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Sue

    I would tend to wonder if the correlation between multi-vitamins and CA has something to do with the fact that women who take care of themselves frequently do 2 things: take multi-vitamins and get yearly mammograms (thereby having an earlier breast cancer diagnosis). This is turn could yield a higher breast CA rate. Possible?

    March 31, 2010 at 19:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Peter Aronson, MD

    I am not surprised by the link between multivitamin intake and breast cancer in the elderly. In 2006 the European Journal of Clinical Investigation published a study showing that in people with coronary artery disease 400 mcg of folic acid increased the pro-inflammatory monomer of the enzyme eNOS while 5 mg increased the anti-inflammatory dimer. I published 2 case reports in the April 2010 Journal of Drugs in Dermatology which showed 5 mg folic acid was part of a vitamin based cocktail that cleared 2 psoriasis patients, one which had elevated homocysteine. I subsequently have collected 3 patients with psoriasis all with homocysteine's at least 14.,4 umol/L whose psoriasis flared on 1 mg daily and 2 of the 3 greatly improved when the dose was changed to 5 mg daily. I note that the folic acid does litlle or nothing to psoriasis in a patient with 12 umol/L and a 6 weeks with another whose homocysteien was 13.1 umol/L. Inflammation is associated with cancer in the skin so why not elsewhere?

    March 31, 2010 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Scott

    What almost nobody in american understands and likley would not believe is that every major degenerative disease increased in the vitamin taking public over the past 70 years. People over 40 years old take 90% of the multivitamins. Interestingly not one of the over 25 studies showing harm from taking vitamins over a long period of time mentioned that the vitamins which were used in the study were man-made, synthetic imitations, with zero food value, made by drug companies. Man cannot create living compounds called vitamins, it's the biggest lie of the 20th century, i've been saying it for 27 years. Pharmacy means sorcery in Greek. Think about it. can you say Frankenstein.

    March 31, 2010 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Linda

    Education, industrialized urban area, may also be associated. Women go from house to car, to office, to car and to store then to house. Always indoors. Then, also wearing suncreen summer and winter (spf15). Vitamin D deficiency is probably correlated to breast cancer and a more likely cause. I'm glad that at least the report said association, not cause and effect. People are already so confused and misguided. People have lost their intuition of how to be healthy. These same people may be better off with the multivitamins than without if Vit. D deficiency is the culprit.

    March 31, 2010 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Donna

    There are many studies out now that have shown vitamins unless deficient do not prevent disease. Juice Plus+ is 17 different fruits, vegetables and grains in a capsule and soft chewable. We are supposed to have 9 to 13 servings and a variety on a daily basis. Almost no one does. Either we can't, won't or don't. JP+ helps bridge the gap. It not only gives you the fruits and vegetables you are missing in your diet, but it increases blood antioxidant levels in 28 days, strengthens the immune system, repairs damaged DNA and protects DNA from free radical damage. The plant kingdom is the only thing that can prevent disease. 90% of diseases is preventable and it is easier to prevent than to cure. 95% of our U.S. population aren't eating enough fruits and vegetables. Invest in the power of prevention. There are 1000's of phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables.

    Check out my website http://www.donnacodelljuiceplus.com and click on all the links. Watch the videos and learn how Juice Plus+ is produced before it gets shipped out to your house. There are well known doctors that are recommending JP+ to all of their patient's. JP+ is the most thoroughly researched product in the world. Look at the research studies at the prestigious universities and hospitals that have been peer reviewed and published in leading medical journals.
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    March 31, 2010 at 20:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Dr.D11

    The article mentioned in this study,is more confusing to the public,than prior to teading it.
    To state that we have a problem,probably,and then to state that we
    can not understand the problem,makes nobody happy.
    To blame some segment of society,as did reader No.1,is very wrong too.
    What am I talking about?
    A) A pill taken must be "Pure".i.e. not a "combo" pill.
    Combining ingredients(Multivitamins),makes it dangerous.
    In pharmacy they call it: Polypill.They also call it :"Smart bomb vs. Cluster Bomb"(Who wants to get bombed in the first place?)
    B)The dosage is crucial.Do not kill a germ with a pill strong enough
    to kill an elephant.
    C) Do not take too many pills to counteract each other.At the end of the day,your body get confused.
    D) Special situation call for no pills .period.Pregnancy is one of it.
    Yes,one need Folic Acid to prevent spinal vertebra defects.But that's
    probably it.Another one is Vitamin B3/Niacin,but don't take unless you prove shortage of H.D.L.(My personal observation).One must consult their doctor,However,how can a doctor be helpfull,when he realy did
    not learn nutrition in Medical school.?
    I hope I gave you enough "Food for the thoughts'.

    March 31, 2010 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Jeannette W.

    There are a number of potential confounders that should be considered when looking at this kind of data.

    It is worth noting that some of the non-specific symptoms that inspire people to start taking vitamins, such as fatigue and generalized malaise, are also associated with cancer and many other chronic illnesses.

    Many people with a family history of serious illness (including cancer) take vitamins in an attempt to improve their health and ward off the disease. So the population "vitamin takers" might be self-selecting for a higher inherited cancer risk.

    April 1, 2010 at 00:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Joanne`

    I am almost 80 and have taken vitamins for years. My only prescribed medicine is an 81 mg aspirin and potassium 8meq which I was told years ago by my gynecologist that it controls blood pressure. Of my four siblings, I am the only one who has never taken blood pressure medication. I no longer take everything everyday but rotate different vitamins, say so that I get this or that every third day or so. I have some osteo arthritis in my hands, but then I have always used them hard, gardening, painting other physical work. I feel good golf, line dance, still garden and can do most anything that comes along.

    April 1, 2010 at 08:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. billrice

    Actually, the question about vitamins and cancer is not new.

    First, let's acknowledge that the use of vitamin supplements in some cases has clear benefits....most notably in pregnancy, because they have been shown to decrease neural tube deficits. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1677062).

    But,... most other vitamin use is based in belief...not science.

    Concerning vitamins and cancer...think of it this way: If you had a cancer cell that started growing in your body...is it possible that vitamins that you've taken could create an environment that is better for the growth of that cancer cell?

    Here's an example in the medical literature: http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/pressreleases/ATBCfollowup

    (Among 29,000 smokers taking vitamin supplements,
    researchers reported that men who took beta-carotene had an 18 percent increased incidence of lung cancers and an 8 percent increased overall mortality).

    Again, among smokers taking beta-carotene in this study , more got lung cancer and more died (compared to those smokers not taking beta-carotene vitamin supplements).

    Conclusion:

    In health care, well structured, unbiased scientific studies are required before you really know the answer to a question (such as: are vitamins supplements helpful to humans?).

    UNFORTUNATELY, the answer is often complex. The answer in this case is likely that vitamins help some people, at some points in their lives (i.e. during pregnancy)...and they may hurt some people, at certain points in their lives (i.e. smokers taking beta-carotene)...and for the vast majority of people in developed countries who have no vitamin deficiencies, ..vitamin supplements may do absolutely nothing of benefit.

    What well designed, scientific studies can you cite?

    April 1, 2010 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Bob Xof

    Broad correlations due an injustice to the supposed scientifically based journals. I'd like to hear specifics on what forms of vitamins and minerals were in the the vitamin, what fillers and binders, capsule, caplet, powder, liquid? In the publics interest CNN should be reporting particulars. However, I imagine CNN does not have particulars and is simply reporting this as an attention grabber. One thing to note is that if you're going to put anything into your body for better health, make sure it's good quality from a GMP certified company and that there are no potentially harmful binders or fillers.

    April 1, 2010 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Stuart

    It is not surprising that Gupta's column would present a story this way, laden with generalities. In the past he positions on everything from nutrition to autism and vaccines have been colored by a pro-pharmaceutical/ pro-medical doctor perspective. Both groups are spending a fortune to prevent people from being their own best judge of their health needs. Most of the readers here are correct in their criticism of the finding. I am certain that all the cancer patients drank water as well. How is that for a correlation that should be noted.

    April 2, 2010 at 15:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Duke

    It is very interesting that not that long ago the medical establishment told us vitamins do nothing and you are wasting your money if you take supplements. Since the American public is now more informed and numerous studies have shown the benefits of vitamins they have changed position from supplements being ineffective to one of fear and that they will harm you.
    While this article does go on to say some positive things about vitamins, why the implication of them causing cancer in the headlines.
    Now that drug companies are in the Vitamin D business they are testing for vitamin D levels. Some studies are estimating that 75% of America is vitamin D deficient. On our radio show http://dukeandthedoctor.com/ we are often asked "Why am I deficient in vitamin D?". Because that is what they tested for. Chances are that if other vitamins were tested for other deficiencies would be found. And that is probably what will ensue as drug companies inch their way into the vitamin business. Then you may see a shift to a more positive attitude towards all vitamins as you have with vitamin D and Omega 3s. The problem is that the products developed by big pharma reflect a degredation in quality an increase in price and further control of your pocket book, health, and freedom.

    April 9, 2010 at 17:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Chuck

    When people try to give sage wisdom like "a vitamin is no substitute for whole foods" it shows they really don't understand that not everybody can eat like they do. It's kind of arrogant and condescending. Different people have different diets and have different needs.

    Nutrition is one of the things people like to argue about like experts. I found this story yesterday because someone told me last night that taking multivitamins had been discovered to cause cancer, and I just bought a 365 tablet bottle to last me the next year. While at heart I'm a skeptic, I take nutritional information very seriously. I am not impressed with these results.

    I'm diabetic. I'm trying very, very hard to get into the best shape possible to help treat my disease – and frankly I'm doing a pretty good job right now. I never took a multivitamin until I was diagnosed. I can't rely on my daily intake of food for all of my necessary nutrients. For one thing, many vegetables make me throw up – things like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots have this effect on me since I was a kid. Green beans, snap peas, and squashes are about all I can handle – and those are of course, all relatively starchy vegetables. Another thing is that my calorie/carb intake is pretty limited – I'm not downing glasses of orange juice for vitamin C, for example, because orange juice is almost entirely sugar, and a cup would be almost an entire meal's worth of carbs for me.

    From all accounts (including my nutritional therapist's), I'm better off taking a multivitamin supplement than nothing at all. I know I'm better off with living foods for the nutrients, but if I get ANYTHING out of the multivitamin, it's a good thing. This study, and the sensationalist reporting of it, seems a little irresponsible, if it even scares off one person like me from getting the supplements they need in their diet.

    June 25, 2010 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Kit 64

    Folic Acid which is often added to vitamins is a no-no. It can cause cancer to grow. Folate, which is found naturally in foods is okay though. Dr. Fuhrman was on to all of this long ago. He makes recommendations as to what to look for in a multi. He also sells his own formulation that is without the folic acid and other dangerous vitamins.

    July 22, 2010 at 18:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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  28. Ritz

    Yes, great content and I also agree that we should not take multiple pills. Look for natural stuff. Foods and if not, try natural, herbal vitamins and minerals. There are some great multi vitamin herbal, natural stuff. I recently started tyring Vemma. If you wanna check it out , it is http://www.nourish.vemma.com. They also have a products for kids that is again natural. All fruit and essential minierals. Aloe vera etc. hope you guys like it too.

    January 6, 2011 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. na li

    I read on the Findrxonline website for breast cancer patients diagnosed for ongoing mammogram have significantly better prognosis those that cancer are discovered by other means; even when cancer has already spread to the lymph nodes. Medications prescribed as Hydrocodone help acontrolar pain.

    January 27, 2011 at 11:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. tony Edwards

    Look for food state supplements if you want to take them ,Solgar,Natures best;are well repected options'you get what you pay for. Mammogram risks need looking into if you are considering having them,and all screening systems are far from infalible. Thermographic scans are harmless,you cannot get them on the NHS, all they have to offer is slash and burn technology,one size fits all ;I really sympathise with those who cannot affored to consider alternatives.

    September 10, 2011 at 07:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Nance

    O.M.G!I wanted to start a dose on the multivitamin to boost ma health and body size.but according to the effects,i thought twice..

    November 3, 2011 at 15:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. multivitamins

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    December 26, 2011 at 16:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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  34. Lynne Page, CPT

    I have spent years collecting articles and research papers about vitamins and their problems and have posted about 80 of them on my web site http://www.LynneHhealth.com/vitamin-info.php. Think of it this way; if vitamins are supposed to be GOOD FOR YOU why do they all have a warning label and a child proof top? We are not vitamin deficient, we are whole food deficient! There are thousands of micro-nutrients in fruits and veggies and around 15 vitamins listed on most labels, don't you think we need the other 9, 985+?

    March 19, 2012 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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    There is some merit to the old saying, “eat your carrots or you’ll go blind.” Carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene and problems with the eyes are one symptom of a deficiency of beta-carotene. However, there are other sources of beta-carotene that offer a sufficient source of nutrients. It shouldn’t surprise you that vegetables and fruits are your best source of beta-carotene.,

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