Turmeric and Cancer

Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, has long been studied for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. It has been shown that curcumin affects cancer cells through multiple mechanisms. It also increases the efficiency of certain chemotherapy drugs. On the other hand, it decreases the effects of other chemotherapeutic medications - so always check with your doctor before using it. Learn more about how curcumin is used for cancer treatment and prevention.

Most cancer treatments available today have a lot of harmful side effects. Chemotherapy, which is currently the most commonly used treatment for cancer, involves chemotherapeutic agents that harm not only tumor cells, but also normal cells. These agents cause major side effects including deafness, infertility, and permanent organ damage. To add to that, this procedure, along with other mainstream cancer treatments, cannot be used for prevention against cancer.

Curcumin, which is a component of turmeric (curcuma longa), has proven to be a great cancer-fighting substance. Based on research, its anti-cancer properties may help prevent or treat some types of cancer like prostate, breast, skin, and colon cancer. It is not only safer, it is also a lot more inexpensive than usual hospital treatments like chemotherapy.

Curcumin (the active substance in turmeric) counteracts some of the effects of certain chemotherapy drugs, especially for breast cancer.

Two of the effects curcumin may have on chemotherapy are the prevention of apoptosis or cancer cell death and the stopping of tumor regression. Curcumin may negate camptothecin, mechlorethamine, and doxorubicin – chemotherapeutic agents that induce apoptosis; and cyclophosphamide which induces tumor regression. So far, this has been observed in in vitro and animal tests.

Experts advise women who are undergoing chemotherapy to avoid taking curcumin supplements. Some even say that all patients undergoing chemotherapy should steer away from curcumin supplement, as well as limit their dietary intake of curcumin from natural food sources, such as turmeric.

However, not all studies agree with this finding. Some have observed an increase in the sensitivity of cancer cells to chemotherapy and radiation through the use of curcumin. This makes the treatment more effective. This observation has been seen in several kinds of cancer including ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, glioblastoma, and squamous cell carcinoma.

It is best to consult your doctor to see if curcumin, or any other dietary supplement that you’re planning to take, has any interactions with other drugs that you are taking.

Some studies have shown curcumin to help trigger cancer cell death or apoptosis. This helps stop mutated cells from invading healthy ones. Also, curcumin has the ability to inhibit the activity of matrix metalloproteinases – the enzyme needed by cancer cells for invading healthy tissue. This prevents cancer from metastasizing or spreading to other organs. Another notable effect of curcumin is its ability to stop cancer cells from having additional supply of oxygen, a process called angiogenesis. This is responsible for the rapid spread of cancer cells all over the body, so limiting it will also slow the progression of cancer. Lastly, unlike clinical cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, curcumin supplements may help protect the body against cancer by increasing the activity of the enzymes in the body that help get rid of potential carcinogens or cancer-causing substances.

Curcumin moderates cancer growth and spread by interfering with certain molecular pathways in the body

Curcumin regulates multiple cell signaling pathways including cell proliferation pathway (cyclin D1, c-myc), cell survival pathway (Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, cFLIP, XIAP, c-IAP1), caspase activation pathway (caspase-8, 3, 9), tumor suppressor pathway (p53, p21) death receptor pathway (DR4, DR5), mitochondrial pathways, and protein kinase pathway (JNK, Akt, and AMPK) to slow down the growth of tumor cells.

Studies Related to Curcumin and Cancer Treatment

Despite the promising results of curcumin treatment in in vitro and animal tests, human tests are still in very early stages. Also most studies done so far are still phase 1 clinical trials. Phase 1 trials are studies involving only a small group of people. These are done to determine the bioavailability, safety, and effectiveness of new kinds of treatments and therapies.

Most clinical studies show that curcumin has very low bioavailability – it does not get absorbed well from the intestine and it is quickly eliminated from the body. Due to this, extremely large doses of curcumin must be taken for even a small amount to reach the blood circulation and get to the tissues and organs that need it.

In a phase 1 clinical study in patients with advanced colorectal cancer, it was observed that doses up to 3.6 g/day did not show major side effects, but the systemic bioavailability of oral curcumin was low (1). This result suggests that taking in 3.6 g of curcumin every day will produce therapeutic levels in the colorectum, but the distribution outside the gut will probably be negligible.

In another study, they gave 3.6 g/day of curcumin to colorectal patients. These patients, did not just have colorectal cancer, they also had liver metastases, which means that their cancer had spread to the liver. The curcumin in this study was administered orally. After 7 days, they found trace levels or small amounts of curcumin metabolites in the liver, but there was no curcumin detected (2).

The results of these studies suggest that because of curcumin’s low bioavailability, taking curcumin orally is more helpful in cancers of the gastrointestinal tract than other tissues. This will be the case until experts figure out a way to make curcumin highly bioavailable.

Curcumin and Colorectal Cancers (colon cancer, rectal cancer and bowel cancer)

Colorectal cancer, which is more commonly called colon cancer, occurs in the colon or rectum. More common terms for the colon are large intestines or large bowel. The rectum connects the colon to the anus. Although colon cancer is more common in people 50 years or older, it has been found to affect men and women in different racial and ethnic groups.

Studies At a Glance:

  • Curcumin may help prevent the development of chemoresistant cancer cells (sensitizes cancer cells to chemotherapy) when taken with chemotherapy drugs. It may also help kill cancer stem cells.
  • Curcumin has been observed to make the general health of patients suffering from colorectal cancer better.
  • Curumin shows better results when taken with resveratrol or citrus limonoids.

The most common treatment for colorectal cancer available today is FOLFOX chemotherapy protocol. This protocol combines 5-fluorouricil, leukovorin and oxaliplatin. However, many patients cured through this protocol experience recurrence. Some studies suggest that using curcumin with FOLFOX prevents the formation of chemoresistant colon cancer cells (3) and (4). This also helps destroy cancer stem cells.

A study in 2009 (5) showed that the combination of curcumin and resveratrol may be effective for cancer therapy and prevention. These two substances hinder the growth of transformed cells and colon carcinogenesis. The results of this study showed that curcumin and resveratrol combined caused a greater suppression of growth of colon cancer cells in vitro (test tube) than either agent alone.

A Nanjing study in 2001 (6) showed promising results for patients suffering from colorectal cancer. Curcumin did not only help fight cancer, it also improved the general health of patients.  Curcumin administration improved the body weight of patients, decreased TNF-alpha (tumor necrosis factor alpha) levels, increased cancer cell death or apoptosis, and increased expression of p53 molecule (tumor supressor) in cancer tissue.

Curcumin targets cyclin-dependent kinase 2 (CDK2), a major cell-cycle protein (7) to suppress the growth of colon cancer cells.

Back in 2013, a study (8) showed that citrus limonoids and curcumin have a synergistic effect, which better hinders the growth of human colon cancer cells, and at the same time, induces apoptosis or death of cancer cells.

Curcumin and Prostate Cancer

Males have a special gland called the prostate. It is located in front of the rectum and below the urinary bladder. Although there are many kinds of cells in the prostate, most cancers grow from the gland cells. Gland cells are responsible for producing the prostate fluid which is added to the semen. Adenocarcinoma is the medical term used for cancer that starts in the gland cells.

Aside from adenocarcinoma, some other types of cancers that can be formed in the prostate gland are sarcomas, small cell carcinomas, and transitional cell carcinomas. However, these types of cancer are very rare, so if you are suffering from prostate cancer, it is probably adenocarcinoma.

There are some prostate cancers that develop and spread quickly, but in most cases, they grow slowly. There are even autopsy studies wherein men who died of other diseases were found to have had prostate cancer that never affected them during their lives.

Studies At A Glance

  • Some studies show that curcumin may slow down prostate cancer cell invasion, tumor growth, and metastasis or the spread of cancer to other organs.
  • Curcumin lessens inflammation related to prostate cancer.
  • There are studies that show curcumin is a possible therapeutic substance for both androgen-dependent and androgen-independent prostate cancer. The former is dependent on testosterone, while the latter is not.

According to some researchers, curcumin may be helpful in preventing breast and prostate cancers, which are both related to inflammation. Curcumin may also lessen their possibility to metastasize or spread to other organs. However, this does not mean that curcumin should be considered a replacement for conventional treatments. This only suggests that curcumin may be useful in preventing the onset of the disease, or stopping full-blown tumors from developing. It may also help stop the cancer cells from metastasizing.

Prostate cancer is commonly connected to chronic inflammatory reactions, and tumor cells produce pro-inflammatory immunomodulators including the cytokines CXCL1 und CXCL2. Immunomodulators are substances that reduce the ability of the immune system to produce antibodies. These may be naturally present in the body, but there are also some that are available from external substances, such as medicines.  In a Munich study (9) they observed the molecular processes that are abnormally regulated in prostate carcinoma cells. In this study, they found out that curcumin reduces the expression of CXCL1 and CXCL2, which in turn, lessens the occurrence of metastasis formation in the lungs.

In a 2013 study in Shanghai (10), they evaluated the effects of curcumin on prostate cancer. They used different types of prostate cancer cells, included an androgen dependent LNCaP prostate cancer cell line and an androgen independent PC-3 prostate cancer cell line. In this study, curcumin induced cell cycle arrest and apoptosis or cancer cell death. Larger doses had more significant effects. This study showed that curcumin can potentially help treat both androgen-dependent and androgen-independent prostate cancer.

A Taiwan study showed that curcumin has several effects on prostate cancer. It hinders prostate cancer cell invasion, tumor growth, and metastasis. They found out that this is possible through curcumin’s ability to suppress epidermal growth factor (EGF)- stimulated and heregulin-stimulated PC-3 cell invasion, as well as androgen-induced LNCaP cell invasion. Curcumin treatment also reduced matrix metalloproteinase 9 activity and downregulated cellular matriptase (11).

Breast Cancer and Curcumin

One of the most common forms of cancer in women is breast cancer. This is a malignant tumor that develops from cells in the breast. In most cases, breast cancer starts in the cells of the milk-producing glands called lobules. It may also begin in the ducts or the passages that drain milk from the lobules to the nipple. In less common cases, it begins in the stromal tissues, including the fatty and fibrous connective tissues of the breast.

Studies At A Glance:

  • Curcumin hinders breast cancer cell growth, and triggers cancer cell death or apoptosis. It also helps prevent metastis.
  • Curcumin lessens the inflammation linked to breast cancer.
  • Breast cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy should be cautious when using curcumin. In some studies, curcumin prevented apoptosis or cancer cell death induces by certain chemotherapeautic agents. However, in other studies curcumin has been found to help make cancer cells more vulnerable to the effects of chemotherapy. This issue needs further research, and until we have a better understanding of the interaction between curcumin and chemotherapy, it is best to consult your doctor before taking curcumin while on chemotherapy.

Studies have been made with regards to chemotherapy and curcumin, but the results are not conclusive.

According to a North Carolina University study (14), curcumin may decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. Some chemotherapeutic agents used for this study were mechlorethamine, cyclophosphamide, camptothecin, and doxorubicin. These drugs are supposed to induce apoptosis or cancer cell death. However, in that study, curcumin prevented this effect.

Based on the results of this study, breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy may have to avoid using curcumin supplements. Some experts even suggest that they have to limit their intake of foods rich in curcumin.

A separate research at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, however, had a different result. In this study curcumin has shown a positive effect on the results of chemotherapy (12). It prevented breast cancer resistance to chemotherapy and prevented metastasis or the spread of cancer cells to the lungs.

In this study, they evaluated the combined effects of Paclitaxel and curcumin. Paclitaxel (Taxol) is currently used as the primary chemotherapeutic agent in breast cancers. However, it is not useful in treating advanced breast cancer because it often causes drug resistance by activating nuclear factor-nB.

They found that curcumin suppressed the activation of NF-nB, which was caused by Paclixatel. It also stopped the cancer cells from spreading to the lung.

Curcumin affects cancer cells in several ways:

  • Through its effect on the expression of p53, Bcl-xL and Bax proteins and induction of p53 DNA-binding activity (13)

  • By downregulating inflammatory cytokines CXCL1 and -2 in breast cancer cells via NFκB (15)

  • Through modulation of β-catenin pathway in human breast cancer cells (16)

Curcumin and Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the form of cancer, which is formed in skin tissues. This form of cancer has several types:

  • Melanoma

This is the type of skin cancer which forms in melanocytes (skin cells that make pigment).

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma

This is the type of skin cancer that forms in the lower part of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin).

  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This type of skin cancer forms in the squamous cells (flat cells that form the surface of the skin).

  • Neuroendocrine Carcinoma of the Skin

This type of skin cancer forms in neuroendocrine cells (cells that release hormones in response to signals from the nervous system).

Skin cancer most often develops in older people and in people with weakened immune system.

Studies At A Glance:

  • In some studies, curcumin slowed down the growth of different types of skin cancer.
  • In a test tube study, curcumin has been shown to trigger apoptosis or cancer cell death in human melanoma cells.

According to research curcumin may help in the prevention and treatment of skin cancer whether used as a topical cream or taken orally.

For sufferers of squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common type of skin cancer, curcumin may be used to slow down growth and tumor progression (20).

A Canadian study evaluated a combination therapy of Tamoxifen –an estrogen receptor blocker, and curcumin. In this study, curcumin induced apoptosis or cancer cell death in malignant human melanoma cell lines. Also, unlike in chemotherapy, this combination did not affect non-cancerous cells.

  1. http://www.kean.edu/~jfasick/docs/Spring_09_SeniorSem_Sect02/Somasundaram%20et%20al%202002.pdfGarcea G, Berry DP, Jones DJ, et al. Consumption of the putative chemopreventive agent curcumin by cancer patients: assessment of curcumin levels in the colorectum and their pharmacodynamic consequences.2005.  (PubMed)
  2. Garcea G, Jones DJ, Singh R, et al. Detection of curcumin and its metabolites in hepatic tissue and portal blood of patients following oral administration. Br J Cancer. 2004.  (PubMed)
  3. Curcumin targets FOLFOX-surviving colon cancer cells via inhibition of EGFRs and IGF-1R. Patel BB1, Gupta D, Elliott AA, Sengupta V, Yu Y, Majumdar AP. 2010 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20332435   
  4. Elimination of Colon Cancer Stem-Like Cells by the Combination of Curcumin and FOLFOX1. Yingjie Yu, Shailender S Kanwar, Bhaumik B Patel, Jyoti Nautiyal, Fazlul H Sarkar, and Adhip PN Majumdar 2009 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781082/
  5. Curcumin synergizes with resveratrol to inhibit colon cancer. Majumdar AP1, Banerjee S, Nautiyal J, Patel BB, Patel V, Du J, Yu Y, Elliott AA, Levi E, Sarkar FH. 2009 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19838927
  6. Upregulation of p53 expression in patients with colorectal cancer by administration of curcumin. He ZY1, Shi CB, Wen H, Li FL, Wang BL, Wang J.2011 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21314329
  7. Curcumin suppresses proliferation of colon cancer cells by targeting CDK2. Lim TG1, Lee SY, Huang Z, Lim do Y, Chen H, Jung SK, Bode AM, Lee KW, Dong Z.2014 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24550143
  8. Citrus limonoids and curcumin additively inhibit human colon cancer cells. Chidambara Murthy KN1, Jayaprakasha GK, Patil BS. 2013 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23584140
  9. Curcumin and prostate cancer; Bachmeir et all, 2012 http://www.en.uni-muenchen.de/news/newsarchiv/2012/bachmeier.html
  10. Curcumin induces cell cycle arrest and apoptosis of prostate cancer cells by regulating the expression of IkappaBalpha, c-Jun and androgen receptor. Guo H1, Xu YM, Ye ZQ, Yu JH, Hu XY.2013 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23875250
  11. Curcumin-targeting pericellular serine protease matriptase role in suppression of prostate cancer cell invasion, tumor growth, and metastasis. Cheng TS1, Chen WC, Lin YY, Tsai CH, Liao CI, Shyu HY, Ko CJ, Tzeng SF, Huang CY, Yang PC, Hsiao PW, Lee MS.2013 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23466486    
  12. Curcumin Suppresses the Paclitaxel-Induced Nuclear Factor-KB Pathway in Breast Cancer Cells and Inhibits Lung Metastasis of Human Breast Cancer in Nude Mice. Bharat B. Aggarwal, Shishir Shishodia, Yasunari Takada, Sanjeev Banerjee, Robert A. Newman, Carlos E. Bueso-Ramos, and Janet E. Price http://scholar.google.com/scholar_url?hl=sl&q=http://www.jivasupplements.org/assets/applets/Curcumin_Suppresses_the_Paclitaxel-Induced__NF-Kappa_B_Pathway_in_Breast_Cancer.pdf&sa=X&scisig=AAGBfm1IGHgUuev3Yk3SdeYbfL3ehCTyqg&oi=scholarr   
  13. Curcumin induces apoptosis in human breast cancer cells through p53-dependent Bax induction. Tathagata Choudhuria, Suman Pala, Munna L Agwarwalb, Tanya Dasa, Gaurisankar Saa, 2002. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014579302022925
  14. Dietary Curcumin Inhibits Chemotherapy-induced Apoptosis in Models of Human Breast Cancer. Sivagurunathan Somasundaram, Natalie A. Edmund, Dominic T. Moore, George W. Small, Yue Y. Shi, and Robert Z. Orlowski2 http://www.kean.edu/~jfasick/docs/Spring_09_SeniorSem_Sect02/Somasundaram%20et%20al%202002.pdf
  15. Curcumin downregulates the inflammatory cytokines CXCL1 and -2 in breast cancer cells via NFκB. Beatrice E. Bachmeier, Isabelle V. Mohrenz,  Valentina Mirisola, Erwin Schleicher, Francesco Romeo, Clara Höhneke, Marianne Jochum, Andreas G. Nerlich,and Ulrich Pfeffer. 2007 http://carcin.oxfordjournals.org/content/29/4/779.short
  16. Potent growth suppressive activity of curcumin in human breast cancer cells: Modulation of Wnt/β-catenin signaling. Chandra P. Prasada, Gayatri Ratha, Sandeep Mathurc, Dinesh Bhatnagard, Ranju Ralhanb. 2009  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0009279709002579
  17. Curcumin  inhibits TPA induced expression of c-fos, c-jun and c-myc proto-oncogenes messenger RNAs in mouse skin . Sham S. Kakar, Deodutta Royb. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0304383594904138
  18. Curcumin inhibits UV radiation-induced skin cancer in SKH-1 mice. Phillips J1, Moore-Medlin T, Sonavane K, Ekshyyan O, McLarty J, Nathan CA.2013.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23386626     
  19. Topical curcumin-based cream is equivalent to dietary curcumin in a skin cancer model. Sonavane K1, Phillips J, Ekshyyan O, Moore-Medlin T, Roberts Gill J, Rong X, Lakshmaiah RR, Abreo F, Boudreaux D, Clifford JL, Nathan CA. 2012 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23316365
  20. Curcumin inhibits skin squamous cell carcinoma tumor growth in vivo. Phillips JM, Clark C, Herman-Ferdinandez L, Moore-Medlin T, Rong X, Gill JR, Clifford JL, Abreo F, Nathan CO. 2011 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21493306
  21. Chemo-resistant melanoma sensitized by tamoxifen to low dose curcumin treatment through induction of apoptosis and autophagy. Chatterjee SJ, Pandey S. 2011. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21088500

Supplements commonly used for Cancer:

Curcumin and Turmeric

Most cancer treatments available today have a lot of harmful side effects. Chemotherapy, which is currently the most commonly used treatment for cancer, involves chemotherapeutic agents that harm... read more…


Resveratrol is a polyphenolic compound found in red grapes and wine, peanuts and certain types of berries.

In the past decades, resveratrol has been extensively studied for its health... read more…

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