What Are the Benefits of Turmeric — and Can It Be Used to Prevent or Treat Cancer? Here’s What the Science Says

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Turmeric is a spice that may have cancer-fighting properties, and can help with side effects of cancer treatment. But it can also interfere with some types of chemotherapy. An Integrative Medicine expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering explains what you need to know.

You may have read about the health benefits of turmeric, a spice native to southeast Asia. For more than 5,000 years, people have used it to treat a variety of ailments, such as skin disorders and digestive issues. Research suggests that its active ingredient, curcumin, may even help prevent or treat cancer. So should you ramp up your intake?

memorial sloan kettering cancer center integrative medicine herbs pharmacist jason hou jason hou

Jason Hou

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Integrative Medicine pharmacist Jason Hou says you can go ahead and add turmeric to your favorite foods. Dr. Hou manages MSK’s About Herbs database, a hub of information on herbs and supplements as they relate to cancer care. But before you stock up on turmeric capsules or vitamins, talk to your MSK healthcare provider, especially if you’re in active treatment.

“Just because a product is labeled as ‘natural’ does not always mean it’s safe — especially for people with cancer,” Dr. Hou says.

Here’s what else Dr. Hou wants you to know about turmeric.

Turmeric has the potential to prevent and treat cancer.

Turmeric reduces inflammation, which is at the root of many diseases, including cancer. Animal and lab studies show that turmeric can help prevent cancer growth and kill certain cancer cells, but we don’t know if it has the same effect in humans. We need large clinical trials to figure that out, says Dr. Hou. The research community is on it. Dr. Hou cites a phase 2 study that combined curcumin and conventional chemotherapy to treat people with advanced colorectal cancer. The researchers found that curcumin is safe and tolerable in these patients, and when combined with conventional chemotherapy, has the potential to improve overall survival (how long someone lives after starting treatment) and progression-free survival — how long someone is on treatment before cancer progresses. Other studies are ongoing.

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Turmeric can help with side effects from cancer treatment.

Small studies among people with cancer show that turmeric can help improve quality of life. In one study, people who used a turmeric-based topical cream had reduced skin irritation caused by chemotherapy. In another, a mouthwash containing curcumin reduced mouth swelling. Turmeric can also help lower pain in some breast cancer patients with joint problems. “This is encouraging,” Dr. Hou says, adding that similar trials are underway in people with prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic cancer.

In fact, MSK is recruiting cancer survivors with pain in their muscles, bones, and joints for a study of a patch that contains turmeric. If you’re interested in learning more, call 646-888-0844.

MSK’s Integrative Medicine Service offers turmeric and curcumin supplements through its herbal dispensary program, located at MSK’s Breast and Imaging Center. Patients must be referred to the dispensary after being assessed by an MSK Integrative Medicine physician or advanced practice provider.
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More turmeric isn’t always better. Turmeric has side effects that you should know about.

“There’s no evidence turmeric as a spice is harmful,” Dr. Hou says. “But for anything more than that, you should consult your healthcare provider or an Integrative Medicine specialist at MSK.” That’s because consuming higher amounts of curcumin — found in turmeric capsules, for example — may interfere with certain chemotherapies, making them less effective. Turmeric can also increase the risks of bleeding and kidney stones, and too much can give you a stomachache.

If you’d like to learn more about how turmeric may fit into your cancer care plan, you can book a consultation with a member of MSK’s Integrative Medicine Service. Call 646-888-0845 for more information.

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Key Takeaways
  • Turmeric is an herb that may have cancer-fighting properties.
  • Turmeric has been shown to help with side effects of cancer treatment.
  • Patients should check with their doctor before consuming turmeric since it can interfere with some kinds of chemotherapy.
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