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Can Turmeric Fight Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 15, 2020

You may use turmeric as a spice in your cooking. The bright yellow powder can be used on its own, but it’s often an ingredient in curry powder. You can also find it as a supplement. Fresh turmeric comes from a plant and looks a lot like its close relative, the ginger root.

The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. The supplement label might say turmeric or curcumin or both. Some people use turmeric supplements for swelling and inflammation. But can it help with cancer?

Turmeric and Cancer

Some studies suggest the curcumin in turmeric has a variety of health benefits, including fighting cancer cells. Some lab studies have found it might work against lung, breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Others suggest that curcumin might help chemotherapy work better.

A study on people with colorectal cancer found it may help slow the disease’s progression. Another found taking it daily may lower the chance of cancer in people who are high risk of it.

But most evidence about turmeric and cancer comes from studies on animals or cells in the lab. With those studies, it's not clear what these studies mean for people who have cancer or those who are trying to avoid getting it.

Clinical Studies

There are clinical trials testing curcumin in people with cancer. Preliminary findings from one show it can help lower levels of a protein that is a key prostate cancer sign. Other studies have tested whether it can help chemotherapy work better in people with advanced pancreatic or colorectal cancers. Results aren't available for the pancreatic cancer study, but the colorectal cancer study showed some possible benefit that may warrant further study.

Different studies are looking at other possible benefits. One found an oral rinse of turmeric may help with the mouth sores that are common in people having radiotherapy for head and neck cancers.

Another found taking turmeric didn’t help with skin problems and pain in people undergoing radiation for breast cancer.

Turmeric Safety

Turmeric is safe to use in cooking. Studies haven’t found many side effects of the root. High doses might cause stomach upset. Your body doesn’t absorb curcumin well, so most of it probably goes right through you. Even if there are benefits to the supplements, it’s important to know that supplements aren’t regulated like medicines so it’s hard to know if you’re getting exactly what’s listed on the label.

There’s some evidence curcumin may interfere with certain cancer drugs. If you’re thinking about trying turmeric or any other supplement, it’s always best to talk to your doctor first.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Turmeric.”

Mayo Clinic: “Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Canter: “Turmeric.”

Aging: “Effects of resveratrol, curcumin, berberine and other nutraceuticals on aging, cancer development, cancer stem cells and microRNAs.”

PLoS One: “Curcumin Enhances the Effect of Chemotherapy Against Colorectal Cancer Cells by Inhibition of NF-κB and Src Protein Kinase Signaling Pathways.”

Clinicaltrials.gov: “Trial of Curcumin to Prevent Progression of Low-risk Prostate Cancer Under Active Surveillance,” “Gemcitabine With Curcumin for Pancreatic Cancer,” “Combining Curcumin With FOLFOX Chemotherapy in Patients With Inoperable Colorectal Cancer (CUFOX),” “Effect of Preoperative Curcumin in Breast Cancer Patients (EPC),” “Curcumin for the Prevention of Radiation-induced Dermatitis in Breast Cancer Patients.”

Cancer Research UK: “Turmeric.”

Nutrition Reviews: “Curcumin and cancer: barriers to obtaining a health claim.”

American Cancer Society: “Dietary Supplements: What is safe?”

The Journal of Nutrition: "Curcumin Combined With FOLFOX Chemotherapy Is Safe and Tolerable in Patients With Metastatic Colorectal Cancer in a Randomized Phase IIa Trial."

Natural Medicines: "Turmeric."

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