Modern medicine has made progress in treating many forms of cancer, but lung cancer remains the most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States and in most of the rest of the world. In the United States alone, 235 thousand people were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012, and 160 thousand died of the disease.
Lung cancer is a condition for which prevention is preferable to cure. Smokers, as you almost certainly know, are far more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers, although a majority of smokers do not develop the disease, and some people who have never smoked do.
Whether or not you smoke, however, curcumin may circumvent the process that transforms damaged lung cells into aggressive lung tumors—or at least that is what 167 published studies based primarily on laboratory (non-clinical) research tell us. Most of these studies have focused on a particular kind of lung cancer known as small cell lung cancer, which is more aggressive than other forms of cancer, but also more responsive to conventional medical treatment.
What Is Small Cell Lung Cancer?
Once known as oat cell lung cancer, small cell lung cancer grows rapidly, spreads to other organs quickly, responds to chemotherapy and radiation strongly, and emits toxic substances that can cause a collection of symptoms known as paraneoplastic syndrome elsewhere in the body. Small cell lung cancer typically originates in the bronchi, at the top of the lungs (where surgery is only possible for one lung), and spreads through the mucous membranes lining them.
As small cell lung cancer cells coalesce to form tumors, the tumors can secrete a stress hormone known as ACTH (adrenocortiotrophic hormone) and a kidney-specific hormone called antidiuretic hormone. These hormones compound the damage done by the cancer as the body loses its ability to fight acidosis and bloodstream concentrations of sodium and potassium swing dangerously from high to low and back again.
Small cell lung cancer can be treated, but it cannot be cured by medical means. With no treatment at all, survival times typically range from 2 to 4 months. With aggressive treatment, some people live more than 5 years.
Curcumin is a legitimate and ethical treatment for small lung cancer, used primarily in hospitals in the Republic of China (Taiwan). It is not, however, a substitute for medically directed treatment of the condition. Curcumin is best used for prevention, and is only part of treatments that can extend life.
How Curcumin Stops the Progression of Small Cell Lung Cancer
A number of laboratory investigations confirm that curcumin “heads off” the development of aggressive, hormone-secreting tumors in small cell lung cancer. Scientists at the Laoining Cancer Institute in Shenyang in the People’s Republic of China have found that curcumin stops the proliferation of single small cell lung cancer cells into masses of small cell lung cancer cells. It does this by inhibiting an enzymatic process known as STAT3 phosphorylation.
If the cancer cells have already proliferated, then curcumin inhibits the ability of the mass of cells to adhere to each other as a colony. Curcumin does this by interfering with the production of three proteins known as Bcl-(X)L, cyclin B1, and survivin. If the cancer cells have survived long enough to reproduce themselves and form a tumor, then curcumin interferes with their ability to use the proteins ICAM-1, MMP-2, MMP-7, and VEGF to invade surrounding healthy tissues. And if the cancer tumor has spread into nearby healthy tissue, then curcumin stops the production of another chemical called IL-6, which helps the tumor establish its own blood supply through a process called angiogenesis.
Scientists at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in the USA have taken their studies of curcumin as a treatment for small cell lung cancer a step further, by combining curcumin treatment with white light exposure. In clinical practice, this is done with fiber optics that deliver light inside the body directly to a tumor, although the technique has not been standardized for treatment with curcumin. The Bowling Green scientists found that combining curcumin and light therapy increased the cancer-killing rate of treatment by 50%, and transformed the surviving cancer cells into a less aggressive form, less likely to form tumors and invade nearby tissues.
For people with small cell lung cancer who continue to smoke, curcumin deactivates the “survival signal” that nicotine sends to the cancer cells. This “survival signal,” as researchers call it, refers to the survival of the cancer, not the survival of the patient. This signal reduces the survivor of the smoker.
Not everyone who has cancer and smokes gets worse as a result of smoking. That depends on the action of a gene called p53. If the smoker has a variant of this cancer-destructive gene that isn’t deactivated by smoking, then smoking doesn’t make the cancer worse. Although this is not a recommendation that anyone should smoke, there actually are some people who aren’t any worse off for smoking during their cancer treatment—although most of them don’t really care about the health effects of cigarettes by that point. However, everyone who has small cell lung cancer benefits from taking curcumin.
Curcumin Sensitizes Small Cell Lung Cancer to Radiation
Curcumin also helps radiation treatment for small cell lung cancer work better. Oncologists often recommend radiation treatment when surgery is impossible (due to the occurrence of the cancer at the top of the lung), and when chemotherapy would be too much of a strain on the immune system.
Researchers at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston, Texas and at the West China Medical School in Chengdu in the People’s Republic of China have investigated the use of curcumin as a radio-sensitizer when radiation is used to fight cancer in the upper lobes of the lung. Preliminary results of their studies suggest that curcumin sensitizes tumors to radiation, making it more likely that they will be killed, but protects healthy lung tissue to reduce the risk of the radiation-related form of lung inflammation known as pneumonitis.
How Much Curcumin Is Enough?
Curcumin is inherently non-toxic. A team of researchers led by Dr. Ajay Goel at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas have found that even 10,000 to 12,000 mg per day can be taken with few or no side effects. Since many people who have cancer have problems with swallowing or with various kinds of indigestion, they recommend a liposome form of the supplement so their patients don’t have to take as many capsules to get the same amount of active curcumin.
If you can’t find BCM-95, however, any reliable brand of curcumin will do. Just remember that curcumin is a supplement to medical care, not an alternative to it. The patients who get the best results are those who pursue a combination of self-care and medically directed care to get maximum benefit from all the treatments that are available.
What About Using Curcumin for Supporting Remission from Other Kinds of Lung Cancer?
The reasons that researchers have focused on using curcumin specifically to treat small cell lung cancer are that it is uniquely responsive to chemotherapy and radiation, and curcumin enhances the benefits of the treatments doctors already offer. It is likely that curcumin has similar benefits for other kinds of lung cancer, but the evidence is not yet in.
The lung cancer patients that will benefit the most from taking curcumin are those who can’t or won’t stop smoking. Curcumin doesn’t stop the underlying carcinogenic process, so it would have to be taken on an ongoing basis, but it seems to stop the progression of cancer cells into invasive metastatic tumors.
Puliyappadamba VT, Cheriyan VT, Thulasidasan AK, Bava SV, Vinod BS, Prabhu PR, Varghese R, Bevin A, Venugopal S, Anto RJ. Nicotine-induced survival signaling in lung cancer cells is dependent on their p53 status while its down-regulation by curcumin is independent.
Mol Cancer. 2010 Aug 20; 9: 220. doi: 10. 1186/1476-4598-9-220.
Shi HS, Gao X, Li D, Zhang QW, Wang YS, Zheng Y, Cai LL, Zhong RM, Rui A, Li ZY, Zheng H, Chen XC, Chen LJ. A systemic administration of liposomal curcumin inhibits radiation pneumonitis and sensitizes lung carcinoma to radiation. Int J Nanomedicine. 2012; 7: 2601-11. doi: 10. 2147/IJN. S31439. Epub 2012 May 24.
Yan D, Geusz ME, Jamasbi RJ. Properties of Lewis lung carcinoma cells surviving curcumin toxicity. J Cancer. 2012; 3: 32-41. doi: 10. 7150/jca. 3659. Epub 2011 Dec 22.
Yang CL, Liu YY, Ma YG, Xue YX, Liu DG, Ren Y, Liu XB, Li Y, Li Z. Curcumin blocks small cell lung cancer cells migration, invasion, angiogenesis, cell cycle and neoplasia through Janus kinase-STAT3 signaling pathway. PLoS One. 2012; 7(5): e37960. doi: 10. 1371/journal. pone. 0037960. Epub 2012 May 25.
Ye MX, Li Y, Yin H, Zhang J. Curcumin: updated molecular mechanisms and intervention targets in human lung cancer. Int J Mol Sci. 2012; 13(3): 3959-78. doi: 10. 3390/ijms13033959. Epub 2012 Mar 22.