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Diablo Oncology By, Jewel Johl, MD

Feb 27, 2017 12:19PM ● By Elena Hutslar

Curcumin is an active ingredient of turmeric, a spice widely used in curries. In many Southeast Asian countries, it has been consumed on a daily basis for centuries. This speaks to both its safety as well as the low incidence of colorectal cancer in these countries. Ancient Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine literature describes turmeric in the treatment of a variety of ailments such as joint pain, wound dressing, liver and biliary disorders, anorexia, and sore throat.

There is a growing interest in curcumin’s ability to fight cancer, although it is not fully understood how. From laboratory experiments, it has been deduced that substances in turmeric (called curcuminoids) inhibit molecules involved in inflammatory reactions. Curcuminoids may protect the body by enhancing the activity of an important detoxifying enzyme and acting as antioxidants by neutralizing free radicals (which can cause DNA damage). Research studies show that turmeric prevents the development of kidney damage from toxins and also stimulates the flow of bile in the gastrointestinal tract. In lab experiments, rats treated with turmeric were protected from colon, stomach, and skin cancers. Turmeric prevents replication of tumor cells when applied directly to them in the laboratory, but it is unknown if this effect occurs in the human body. Curcumin, a curcuminoid, has shown biological activity in pancreatic cancer patients, and there are ongoing studies to test its effect as an addition to current cancer treatment. However, recent experiments have suggested that turmeric might interfere with the activity of some chemotherapy drugs in breast cancer, so the question remains whether this spice is helpful or harmful during chemotherapy.

Curcumin is known to interfere with cytochrome P450 enzymes, which are important for metabolism of various medications, and they may interact with chemotherapy drugs like cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin, commonly used to treat various cancers. Turmeric for clinical use needs further investigation due to its inherent poor absorption, rapid metabolism, complex mechanistic profile, and largely preclinical data.

Preliminary data suggest effectiveness of a topical turmeric-based cream for reduction of radiotherapy-induced skin reaction in patients with head and neck cancer. A number of clinical trials are currently under way to further explore both the chemopreventive and/or therapeutic role of curcumin in various cancers, especially colorectal cancer. Curcumin can potentially increase the risk of bleeding, especially in patients taking blood thinners, so caution and consultation with your doctor is advised before you consider taking it. Even though there are ongoing clinical trials to explore the effectiveness of curcumin in prevention and treatment of cancer, it may not hurt to add a little spice to your life.

Dr. Johl is a Board Certified Medical Oncologist and Hematologist with Diablo Valley Oncology & Hematology Medical Group. He has expertise in treating all forms of cancer and blood disorders and has a particular interest in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, colorectal cancers, and benign and malignant hematologic diseases. Dr. Johl sees patients in Pleasant Hill and Brentwood. For more information call 925-677-5041