Curcumin is a genuinely helpful supportive natural remedy for breast cancer. The key to using curcumin successfully in breast cancer, however, is using it in combination with the other appropriate nutritional supplements.
Worldwide, about 1 woman in 10 eventually develops breast cancer. In the British Commonwealth, that figure is about 1 in 9 women. And in the United States, it is about 1 in 8. About 1 in 700 men will develop breast cancer, and in the men and women who develop breast cancer, a little more than 1 in 5 will die of the disease.
Curcumin helps men and women fight breast cancer:
- before the disease can be detected, when there are changes in breast cell DNA that have not yet led to the formation of tumors and
- during remission, when there is a risk that new DNA damage can set off a second round of the disease.
Curcumin is not especially helpful in fighting breast cancer once it has spread. And it works best in the right combinations.
Using curcumin to help treat breast cancer has been the focus of research at some of the world’s leading cancer treatment centers. Researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), at the M. D. Anderson Hospital and Baylor School of Medicine in Houston, and at the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City not only have done research on curcumin as a potential treatment for breast cancer, they already use it in comprehensive care plans for their current breast cancer patients.
There is a great deal of evidence that curcumin makes a difference in breast cancer treatment, but it is very important to understand up front that curcumin is never all you do for breast cancer.
Curcumin is not a stand-alone cure. Women (and men) who beat breast cancer fight it with all the tools they can find, both natural and conventional. Using curcumin and the natural therapies that work with it can reduce the need for chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, and surgery,. Just be sure to work with your doctors, rather than against them, as you strive to achieve and remain in remission.
Curcumin Through the Stages of Breast Cancer
Cancer is a process that begins with disruption in the DNA of a cell. Then it progresses through a series of steps to the formation of tumors and the spread of those tumors through the body. At every stage in the pathology of breast cancer, medicine, nutrition, and natural support factors can help the body fight cancer to achieve remission.
Curcumin is beneficial for men and women who have breast cancer at every stage of the disease, but it is beneficial in different ways and with different co-factors at different stages of the disease. If the question is, “Should I be taking curcumin in addition to my other treatments for breast cancer?” the answer is “Yes,” but the products that work with curcumin and your doctor-directed treatments will vary.
Curcumin Protects DNA
The most basic way of stopping breast cancer is by stabilizing the DNA of cancer-prone cells. Ironically, some of the older chemotherapies for cancer killed tumors but generated a new generation of cancer cells by interfering with normal DNA repair. (Modern chemotherapies usually do not carry this side effect, and even the older chemotherapies actually extended life by taking pressure off blood vessels and other organs. Talk with your doctor to make sure you are getting appropriate treatment. )
Curcumin helps stabilize DNA¹. This prevents breast cancer from ever occurring in the first place, and it extends remission when breast cancer has not been avoided.
The way curcumin protects DNA² is by acting as an antioxidant. In pre-cancerous breast cells, curcumin protects the p53 gene, which can “turn off” a cell when the rest of its DNA is damaged. Curcumin is probably more useful than vitamin C or vitamin E for this purpose, because, inside the human body, it is not possible to accumulate so much curcumin that it starts acting as a pro-oxidant (doing damage) rather than an antioxidant (preventing damage). Overdose of vitamins C and E can have this unintended, highly damaging effect. Curcumin is protective in potentially pre-cancerous or “re-cancerous” cells without any risk of overdose.
Curcumin Helps Induce Apoptosis
The second way curcumin stops breast cancer is by triggering a process known as apoptosis³, sometimes described as “cell suicide”. Even if the p53 gene doesn’t destroy the cell that has damaged DNA, apoptosis can keep it from multiplying.
The p53 is a safeguard built into breast cell DNA that sends the cell a “Die! Die now!” signal if DNA damage is detected. Curcumin helps p53 do its job⁴. There are many other natural compounds that amplify this anti-cancer effect.
At the stage DNA has been damaged but the future cancer cell has not begun to multiply, curcumin is synergistic with vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, selenium, garlic, and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, one of the omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish oil, but not in vegan omega-3 oils). These supplements can act together prevent damaged DNA from becoming cancer DNA. And since apoptosis is the protective mechanism that most successful in preventing breast cancer or extending remission, if you’ve had breast cancer, or you know you are at special risk for breast cancer, you will benefit from taking curcumin and all these other (relatively inexpensive) supplements.
This means that if you have ever had breast cancer and you are now in remission, or if you have tested positive for the BRAC gene but you have decided not to have prophylactic mastectomy, it’s in your best interest to beat back breast cancer before it can proliferate into tumors. This is the combination of supplements that is most likely to extend remission or protect against ever developing breast cancer in the first place.
Curcumin Counteracts Estrogen Stimulation of Breast Cancer
But let’s suppose you weren’t able to stop DNA damage and you weren’t able to stop the multiplication of those first few cancer cells. Then the third way of stopping breast cancer is blocking a process called signal transduction.
Basically, interfering with cellular signal induction means blocking outside factors from telling the cancer cell “Grow, baby, grow. ” In many cases of breast cancer, the most active signal transduction agent is estrogen. Curcumin helps block the estrogen signal to the individual cancer cells. It works directly on the cancer cell even by itself, but at this stage of the disease, curcumin is synergistic with genistein, a compound found in soy.
You can get genistein from supplements or by eating soy products. Either way, you don’t need a lot. Your body can only absorb an amount of genistein roughly equivalent to 15 grams (half an ounce) of tofu per day. It’s OK to take a genistein supplement in a dosage of up to 100 mg a day if you don’t eat soy foods. Taking that 100 mg of soy isoflavones will help your body fight off the effects of hormones on breast cancer, but taking more than 100 mg of soy isoflavones per day will neither help nor hurt. Taking more than 100 mg of soy isoflavones per day just costs more money.
Curcumin Regulates Cell-to-Cell Communication
The fourth way curcumin can stop breast cancer is by encouraging normal cell-to-cell communication. The cells in the breast have to “talk” to each other. They communicate so that cells can find their proper place in breast tissue. They communicate about inflammation and infection and the flow of nutrients.
Breast cancer cells basically “talk too much. ” They put constant demands on the healthy cells around them. Curcumin helps tone down this “cross-talk” so that healthy cells can still communicate with each other, but sick cells can’t dominate the discussion.
The way curcumin does this is by inhibiting an enzyme called tyrosine kinase. Green tea catechins (specifically a compound called epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG) also have this effect, and at this stage, they are helpful if taken with curcumin⁵. Because cancer cells “talk too much,” and healthy cells don’t, these natural cancer fighters inhibit cancer cells without interfering with healthy cells. The time to take curcumin and green catechins is when you have been told you have “in situ” breast cancer cells and you are awaiting further treatment.
Curcumin Fights Angiogenesis
The fifth way you can use curcumin to beat breast cancer is inhibiting tumor angiogenesis. Even after breast cancer cells have multiplied so rapidly that they form tumors, the tumor “stays put” (the cancer remains in situ) until the tumor grows its own blood supply. Tumors literally dissolve the healthy tissue around them and then send out hormonal signals that create new blood vessels. These new blood vessels provide them with oxygen and nutrients, and provide a route for escape to the rest of the body.
There are at least seven chemical pathways through which curcumin helps stop the process of angiogenesis. Curcumin counteracts histamine, which tumors secrete to “eat through” the healthy tissues surrounding them. It counteracts the growth factors that enable the formation of new blood vessels.
And curcumin counteracts some of the cancer-causing effects of bad diet. Curcumin prevents the production of inflammatory compounds from arachidonic acid, which is found in various greasy foods, and it also counteracts the effects of high insulin levels, which occur when non-diabetics eat too much sugar. Taking curcumin doesn’t make it OK to eat junk food, but it helps compensate when you just can’t eat healthy. But if you have been told you already have a breast cancer tumor—please try to eat healthy!
What foods are especially healthy at this stage of breast cancer?
Anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, the plant chemicals that give berries their red and blue hues, help stabilize blood vessels so cancer cells can’t dissolve them. Curcumin, garlic, resveratrol, and vitamin E slow down the action of inflammation-inducing leukotrienes, which are formed when the diet is high in sugar and trans-fat.
Curcumin Counteracts Invasion and Metastasis
The sixth way to use curcumin in stopping breast cancer is inhibiting invasion and metastasis⁶. Before a tumor can spread to the rest of the body, individual cancer cells have to dissolve the protein “glue” that holds them in place in the tumor. Then they have to dissolve the blood vessel wall nearest the tumor. Then they have to “glue” themselves back in place in healthy tissue. Stopping any part of this process stops metastatic breast cancer.
Curcumin helps stop invasion in a very important way. It counteracts the action of the enzyme tumors secrete to allow cancer cells to burrow through the collagen lining of blood vessels, collagenase. When a tumor can’t force its cells into the bloodstream, it can’t spread to distant organs in the body.
Even at this advanced stage of the disease, curcumin has cofactors that extend its benefits against cancer. When tumors are ready to spread to other organs, curcumin is synergistic with DHA⁷ (docosahexaenoic acid, the omega-3 essential fatty acid that is found in both microalgae and fish oil), EPA (eicosahexaenoic acid, the omega-3 essential fatty acid that is only found in fish oil), and vitamin D3. While it smells gross and tastes awful, your most effective source of the other helpful nutrients for this stage of cancer is cod liver oil, available in capsules and also with lemon and cherry flavorings.
Curcumin Boosts Immune Response
The seventh way curcumin helps defeat breast cancer is by boosting immune response—but having a stronger immune system is only half of what is needed. Cancer cells have ways of disguising themselves so that the immune system cannot detect them. Fighting cancer at this stage requires both a healthy immune system and a way to “unmask” breast cancer so immune cells can recognize it.
Curcumin doesn’t “boost” the immune system in the sense of forcing it to make more white blood cells. Instead, curcumin helps the white blood cells you already have find the cancer they need to attack. Curcumin inhibits the production of proteins that allow tumors to disguise themselves from the immune system.
Curcumin Is Also Anti-Inflammatory
The benefits of curcumin fighting breast cancer don’t stop at its direct effects on pre-cancerous and cancer cells and breast cancer tumors. Curcumin is also a general anti-inflammatory. It helps relieve pain. It minimizes whole-body damage after radiation treatment. And by stimulating the flow of bile, it helps relieve constipation, which is a very common problem when breast cancer patients take hydrocodone (Vicodin) or oxycodone (Oxycontin) for pain.
Curcumin and DHA for Fighting Breast Cancer
Curcumin is also synergistic with DHA, the omega-3 essential fatty acid that is also known as docosahexaenoic acid. DHA is the omega-3 fatty acids that is found in both fish oil and microalgae in relatively large amounts, and in anchovies, bluefish, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, swordfish, tuna, and caviar in smaller amounts. (There are other foods that also contain DHA, but not in amounts that are useful in fighting breast cancer. )
Scientists at Indiana University have found that the combination of curcumin and DHA fights breast cancer at nearly every stage of the disease. When cancer cells are exposed to a combination of the two compounds, the genes that are involved in cell cycle arrest (stopping the changes in the breast cancer cell that enable it to multiply), apoptosis (activation of a “suicide gene” in the breast cancer cell), cell adhesion (sending out proteins that “glue” the breast cancer cell in place so it cannot travel to other parts of the body), and another protein that inhibits metastasis are activated. The combination also deactivates genes that enable breast cancer cells to divide and multiply. The Indiana University research team has shown that curcumin and DHA together offer greater benefits than either separately for five different strains of breast cancer cells.
Curcumin and Piperine for Fighting Breast Cancer
Many brands of curcumin combine it with piperine, a chemical extracted from black pepper. About 30 years ago scientists at the Sabinsa Corporation, most of whom had been born in India but educated in the United States, began to look into a scientific explanation of the ancient Ayurvedic principle that turmeric (the plant source of curcumin) is generally more effective when it is combined with black pepper (the plant source of piperine). They found that the combination of curcumin and piperine is much more readily and completely absorbed from herbs and supplements into the bloodstream than either chemical is alone.
It turns out that curcumin and piperine both fight breast cancer⁸, and that they fight breast cancer in the same way. A research team at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Michigan has found that these two chemicals interfere with the disease when it exists as cancerous stem cells. Stem cells are cells that have the potential to become any kind of tissue, but in breast cancer, some stem cells have the ability to spread the disease to any kind of tissue.
Breast cancer stem cells make it possible for the disease to spread, but these specialized, destructive cells can’t do their damage unless they coalesce in large numbers in a target organ. To form a metastatic tumor, the breast cancer stem cells have to be able to signal to each other to announce their presence. The University of Michigan research team discovered that both piperine and curcumin interfere with this process, and the combination of the two chemicals is more effective than either chemical alone.
Both curcumin and piperine prevent stem cells from forming “mammospheres” that become the centers for new tumors. Their anti-cancer effects, however, are not directed at non-stem cells, that is cells that have already “differentiated” into healthy tissue, and they are not directed at other stem cells that become new and needed bone, blood, and fat cells.
What About Curcumin Alone in Fighting Breast Cancer?
The synergistic benefits of curcumin with piperine and curcumin with DHA are real and documented, but curcumin is also beneficial all by itself.
In the 1980′s, epidemiologists noticed that women in Trinidad, where curcumin-rich curries are a common part of the diet, didn’t suffer breast cancer as often as women on nearby islands where curries were eaten less often. At that time, breast cancers were seldom detected until they formed tumors that could be palpated and felt during self-exam or a medical exam, so the epidemiologists did not really have a grounds for speculating about when the food was helpful. They just knew that women were less likely to die of breast cancer if they ate curry, which is a source of curcumin.
It turns out that curcumin by itself if helpful in preventing an event called angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is the process by which a tumor develops its own blood supply. Ironically, breast cancers build their own connections to the circulatory system with the help of white blood cells. They recruit a kind of white blood cell known as a neutrophil to digest the healthy cells around them. They “bust out” of healthy tissues by creating colonies of neutrophils that release inflammatory chemicals that kill healthy issues but not the cancer. These are the same cells that release the inflammatory chemicals that cause the actual symptoms of colds and flu through a similar process.
Curcumin counteracts a chemical called granulocyte colony activating factor. This keeps the breast cancer tumor from gathering enough neutrophils to break through surrounding healthy tissue to build pathways for blood vessels. Without its own blood supply, it cannot grow as fast, it does not rob as many nutrients from healthy cells, and it cannot easily spread to the rest of the body.
How Much Curcumin Is Enough?
Cancer expert Dr. John Boik cites studies that find that even tiny amounts of curcumin have an anticancer effect when curcumin is taken with other supplements. As little as 24 mg of curcumin per day, which is a smaller dose than you can buy commercially, produces measurable benefits when it is part of complete supplementation program.
DHA is a nutritional supplement you may want to take separately. Either fish oil or vegan microalgae oils contain DHA in sufficient amounts to make a difference in your health, but fish oil contains more DHA per capsule at about 1/5 of the cost. A dosage of 360 mg a day (3 to 5 fish oil capsules, or 2 or 3 microalgae capsules) is enough.
The optimum dose is somewhere between 1,800 and 8,000 mg per day. Where curcumin is used in clinical practice, as it is at M. D. Anderson Hospital in Texas or (in some cases) at Sloan-Kettering in New York, doctors typically advise taking a dose closer to 8,000 mg per day, but not more.
The reality is, that’s a lot of curcumin. Some people object to taking so many capsules. However, if you are taking other natural therapies in addition to your medically prescribed treatments, any dosage of 1,800 mg a day or more is likely to offer benefits.
The key to success is to take the right combination of nutritional supplements at the right time. When you are in remission, take smaller doses of more supplements, and when you know your cancer is active, take larger doses of curcumin and fewer supplements. But if breast cancer is a reality in your life, take at least some curcumin on a regular basis for your best results.
- Kakarala M, Brenner DE, Korkaya H, Cheng C, Tazi K, Ginestier C, Liu S, Dontu G, Wicha MS. Targeting breast stem cells with the cancer preventive compounds curcumin and piperine. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2010 Aug; 122(3): 777-85. doi: 10. 1007/s10549-009-0612-x. Epub 2009 Nov 7.
- Ruby AJ, Kuttan G, Babu KD, et al. Anti-tumour and antioxidant activity of natural curcuminoids. Cancer Lett. 1995 Jul 20; 94(1): 79–83.
- Mehta K, Pantazis P, McQueen T, Aggarwal BB. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is a potent antiproliferative agent against human breast tumor cell lines. Anticancer Drugs 1997; 8: 470–481.
- Sen GS, Mohanty S, Hossain DM, Bhattacharyya S, Banerjee S, Chakraborty J, Saha S, Ray P, Bhattacharjee P, Mandal D, Bhattacharya A, Chattopadhyay S, Das T, Sa G. Curcumin enhances the efficacy of chemotherapy by tailoring p65NFκB-p300 cross-talk in favor of p53-p300 in breast cancer. J Biol Chem. 2011 Dec 9; 286(49): 42232-47. doi: 10. 1074/jbc. M111. 262295. Epub 2011 Oct 19.
- Khafif A, Schantz SP, Chou TC, et al. Quantitation of chemopreventive synergism between (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate and curcumin in normal, premalignant and malignant human oral epithelial cells. Carcinogenesis 1998 Mar; 19(3): 419–24.
- Palange AL, Di Mascolo D, Singh J, De Franceschi MS, Carallo C, Gnasso A, Decuzzi P. Modulating the vascular behavior of metastatic breast cancer cells by curcumin treatment. Front Oncol. 2012; 2: 161. doi: 10. 3389/fonc. 2012. 00161. Epub 2012 Nov 15.
- Altenburg JD, Bieberich AA, Terry C, Harvey KA, Vanhorn JF, Xu Z, Jo Davisson V. , Siddiqui RA. A synergistic antiproliferation effect of curcumin and docosahexaenoic acid in SK-BR-3 breast cancer cells: unique signaling not explained by the effects of either compound alone. BMC Cancer. 2011 Apr 21; 11: 149. doi. 10. 1186/1471-2407-11-149.
- Ji Z. Targeting DNA damage and repair by curcumin. Breast Cancer (Auckl). 2010 Feb 16; 4: 1-3.