Breast cancer is one of the most common cancer among in the world.
About 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Based on 2011 statistics, in US alone, more than 220,097 were diagnosed with this cancer and 40,939 died due to it.
Globally, 1.7 million new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in 2012.
The stats present a grim picture.
Before talking about turmeric and breast cancer let me talk a bit about breast cancer. When body cells divide uncontrollably, tumors are formed. If the cells forming the tumor are normal, the tumor is benign and if not it is cancerous.
Cancers are named after the organ from where they originate. Breast cancer is the cancer of the mammary tissue in which the tumour develops in the lobules (tissue where milk is secreted) or in the ducts (tissue which forms the ducts/tubes to transport the milk). Most common type of breast cancer is ductal carcinoma in the ducts.
The exact causes of breast cancer are unknown and may be variable in women but the risk factors include old age, menopause after 55, taking hormone therapy, obesity, presence of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene etc.
Women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer have a greater chance of being affected by this disease .
Breast cancer usually originates in breast tissues and can subsequently spread to surrounding tissues and other organs. There is no specific cause for breast cancer although genetics, ethnicity age, diet can all be contributing factors.
Some of the symptoms of breast cancer include lump / polyp under the armpits, a pea-sized mass in the breast, clear fluid or bloody discharge from the nipple, change in the breast shape and size, redness around the nipple or breast etc.
Once the diagnosis has confirmed the presence of breast cancer, treatment can involve radiation or chemotherapy, surgery, hormone therapy or a combination of other drugs.
If you are facing any of the above symptoms, I would suggest to visit a doctor immediately for proper check-up.
Turmeric & Breast Cancer
Turmeric, also known as the golden spice, is an ancient herb which is being used since centuries for both edible and medicinal purposes. It has been used to treat disorders like cold, flu, swelling, bruises, eye and skin problems, upset stomach, arthritis and many more.
Recent research has shown that turmeric is extremely efficient in treating several types of cancers including breast cancers by virtue of its property to induce cancer cell death, reduce inflammation and inhibit the growth of the tumour .
Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer and affects most number of people after skin cancers. It is not just the risk factors that make it problematic but also different types of it and its treatment that may take time and even be fatal.
Several types of breast cancers have come into picture. The most common one, ductal carcinoma occurs in the ducts of breasts that carry milk. Lobular carcinoma occurs in the lobules that produce milk and a relatively rare inflammatory breast cancer may cause the breasts to be red, warm and swollen .
Each type of breast cancer is further classified in any of the three types. Estrogen receptor or progesterone receptor positive (ER/PR); HER2 positive and one of the most dangerous ones, triple negative.
The ER/PR positive occurs due to hormonal imbalance. Once the cancer is removed, it can be prevented from recurring by giving endocrine therapy. The HER positive is more aggressive but this also can be prevented from recurring after treatment by giving a drug called herceptin.
Finally, triple negative is the one which is negative for ER/PR and HER. It is usually caused due to the presence of mutated BRCA genes. It is in most cases, inheritable and there is not much therapy available to prevent it from recurring after treatment .
Curcumin thus, has been found to play an important role in all types of breast cancer inhibition, treatment and post therapy prevention of the cancer from recurring. It helps ease the symptoms via multiple ways in the above mentioned breast cancer types.
Laboratory studies have established that curcumin – the chemical compound in turmeric – does offer anti-cancer benefits. It can cause cancer cell death, therefore preventing their proliferation. I have already discussed a few of these in my previous articles.
Of the different cancers, curcumin is said to offer the best effects for bowel cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer and stomach cancer cells.
I am summarizing how turmeric can help by using results of some studies pointing towards how turmeric can help in preventing breast cancer and also helping the ones who already have it.
A) Curcumin helps in preventing the occurrence of breast cancer
Research has shown that there is not one but many ways by which regular intake of turmeric can help in the prevention of the occurrence of breast cancers. The active ingredient of turmeric, curcumin, regulates several processes in the cells that keep the tissues healthy.
One of the important mechanisms of the cell is its ability to regulate telomerase activity. Telomerase is an enzyme that is responsible for the extension of the life of the cell, allowing it to replicate time and again.
Telomerase is generally not expressed or is expressed in small amounts in healthy cells, so that the cells die after a limited number of replications. However, when this expression is dysregulated, the cells turn cancerous by dividing nonstop.
Curcumin from turmeric has been shown to regulate the telomerase activity in the cells and prevent it’s over expression of under expression. This leads to the controlled cell division and prevention of the cells from turning cancerous .
Besides regulating telomerase, curcumin also shows potent anti inflammatory and anti oxidant activities on the cells of the breast tissue. Inflammation and oxidation occurs in case of minor or major damage or infection in the tissues and is good for disease prevention.
However, dysregulated activation of inflammation or oxidation though the enzyme COX 2 can lead to further damage to the cells and cause the cells to turn into cancer cells. Curcumin, through its anti inflammatory and anti oxidative properties, prevents this problem and thus, cancer .
Curcumin has also been found to regulate the cell division and self renewal of the breast cells. Dysregulated signaling that leads to excessive self renewal of the cells is also one of the major reasons that lead to cancer.
Curcumin regulates such signalling pathways in the breast tissues and prevents the formation of tumours and lumps even in the presence of harmful carcinogens that potentially cause cancer .
What it means: curcumin helps in preventing the occurrence of breast cancer by maintaining the normal signaling and growth of the cells. It also protects the cells from inflammation and oxidation and keeps them away from turning into cancer cells
B) Turmeric helps in healing breast cancer
Cancer cells become so, because they undergo uncontrolled division, no cell death, un-regulated signalling systems which promotes their growth and metastasis (their ability to invade and cause cancer in other tissues).
Research has shown that curcumin can control and regulate all of these functions in the cancer cells and potentially heal the breast cancers.
1. Curcumin from turmeric controls division of cancer cells
Uncontrolled growth is one of the major characteristics of the cancer cells. In breast cancer cells, this growth causes the formation of lumps that can be easily felt in the chest. If not treated, these cells move to other sites where they cause additional tumours.
An experiment on induction of ER positive breast cancer by estrogenic pesticides, it was shown that curcumin has the ability to limit or stop the growth and progression of these tumour cells. This controls the overall growth of the tumour and heals the cancer.
What it means: curcumin helps in controlling the growth and proliferation of the cancer cells of the breast, thus healing the tumour and preventing it from moving to later stages .
2. Curcumin induces programmed cell death in cancer cells
Just inhibiting the growth of the cancer cells is not enough. They need to be killed so that they don’t affect other tissues and organs. However, cancer cells modify themselves so that they don’t die.
Apoptosis or programmed cell death is a process in which normal cells commit suicide in case of irreparable damage (so that it is not passed to future generation of cells). This process is controlled by several pro and anti apoptotic factors.
the cancer cells somehow find a mechanism to suppress the pro apoptotic factors that usually promote apoptosis. They also up regulate anti apoptotic factors that prevent the cells from death. This makes them virtually immortal and unable to undergo apoptosis.
Curcumin, in a study, was shown to up regulate several pro apoptotic factors (e.g Bax and P53) in breast cancer cells. The induction and activation of these previously suppressed pro apoptotic factors in the cancer cells successfully induced cell death in the tumour.
What it means: curcumin induces the pro apoptotic genes in the breast cancer cells and cause their death. This kills the tumour and heals the cancer and its symptoms , .
3. Curcumin regulates the signalling pathways in cancer cells
Cancer cells have been found to contain a lot of dysregulation when it comes to signalling. Signalling is an important phenomenon of the cell through which the cells control their own growth and the growth of neighbouring tissues.
In cancer cells, the most common pathway being dysregulated is NF-ƙB, which controls the growth, division and inflammation of the cell. This pathway is highly up regulated in the cancer cells as it increases the growth of these cells.
Curcumin has been found to inhibit the NF-ƙB pathway in the cancer cells, which ultimately controls the cells division, proliferation and the ability invade other tissues. It also helps in controlling the division of the neighbouring cells which get signals from the affected cell.
What it means: curcumin from turmeric helps in controlling the signalling pathways in the cancer cells which are usually dysregulated in these cells. Controlling these pathways helps in regulating growth and division of not just cancer cells but neighbouring affected tissues as well .
4. Curcumin disrupts the cell division process in cancer cells
The process of cell division of very complex and regulated. However, the absence of regulating factors leads to continuous division and cancer in the cells.
One way of killing the cancer cells is to disrupt important junctions of the cell division process which force the cells to abort the division process. An experiment has proven that curcumin does so by inhibiting the spindle formation.
Formation of spindle fibres is an important step in cell division where in, the fibres attach to the chromosomes following which the cells divide. Curcumin does not allow the formation of these fibres which stops the process of division at that step.
What it means: curcumin disrupts important steps in cell division process of the cancer cells which ultimately halt this process and does not allow the cells to grow. Thus, curcumin shows cytostatic effects on breast cancer cells .
5. Curcumin inhibits metastasis in advanced breast cancers
In advanced stages, the cells of the cancer or tumour lumps start to leave their place of origin via the blood and relocate to other tissues. This invasion leads to the formation of the tumours in other parts of the body.
The above mentioned process, also called metastasis, is an extremely harmful process as it makes the cancers untreatable and usually fatal. It is thus important to stop the metastasis of the breast cancer cells before they start forming tumours in other tissues (usually lungs).
In an experimental trial, it was shown that curcumin has the ability to stop metastasis in advanced human breast cancer cells. By regulating the signalling, growth and other factors in these cells, curcumin inhibits the process of metastasis in breast cancer cells and prevents the formation of tumours in other organs of the body.
A study in Munich as found that curcumin can prevent metastasis. It is well tolerated and can be used for both primary and secondary treatment of cancer.
Both prostate and breast cancer can cause chronic inflammatory reactions and the tumor cells produce protein cytokines (CXCL1, CXCL2) and pro-inflammatory modulators. Turmeric has been able to decrease the expression of both these proteins and can reduce the metastatic potential of breast cancer cells.
What it means: curcumin helps in inhibiting the metastasis of the cancer cells by regulating their signalling process. This ultimately helps in preventing the occurrence of tumours in other parts of the body and gives more time for the therapy to treat the existing tumour , .
6. Slowing down its spread to other organs such as lungs
Apart from preventing formation of tumors, curcumin can even help when breast cancer is already present by slowing down its spread to the lungs.
The studies were conducted on mice which were injected with breast cancer cells from humans. The resultant tumors were then removed in order to stimulate a mastectomy.
One group of the mice were the control group and they received no treatment, the 2nd was given Taxol a cancer drug, the 3rd group was given curcumin and the 4th group received a treatment of both Taxol and curcumin. After 5 weeks, the mice in all the groups were tested.
Breast cancer had spread to the lungs of just 50% of the pure curcumin group and 22% of the Taxol plus curcumin group. However, in the other 2 groups, lung tumors had developed in 95% of the first (no treatment) group and 75% of the 2nd Taxol-only group.
What it means: It can help in slowing down the spread of cancer to other organs such as lungs which leads to further complications.
C) Turmeric helps in easing the symptoms of breast cancer
Breast cancer poses a lot of symptoms, especially the inflammatory breast cancer type. The breasts usually feel
lumpy and hard and are sensitive or painful to touch in later stages. They may also become swollen, red and warm.
All these characteristic symptoms of breast cancer are attributed to the process of inflammation which causes the pain, swelling and redness in the breast tissue. As explained earlier, curcumin has powerful anti inflammatory effects through which it helps in easing these symptoms.
By reducing inflammation, curcumin from turmeric not just kill the cancer cells, it also reduces the pain, swelling, redness and other problematic symptoms of this disease. It helps in downregulating inflammatory cytokines CXCL- 1 and 2 in the cancerous tissues.
The cytokines CXCL 1 and 2 attract the fighter immune cells of the body to attack the affected tissue. This process increases the damage to the breasts and the problems of pain, swelling and redness occur. By controlling these cytokines, curcumin eases the painful symptoms of this disease.
Curcumin not only eases inflammation, it also helps in recovering from multi drug resistance(MDR). Drug resistance is a very common problem during chemotherapy as the cancer cells being treated with chemicals develop resistance against them and fail to respond to the therapy.
MDR resistance leads to using of even harsher chemicals for the treatment that are very painful and discomforting. Curcumin has been shown as a powerful agent to reverse multi drug resistance in all the cancer cells, including breast cancer cells.
Overcoming drug resistance by curcumin not just helps in making the therapy successful, but also helps in faster treatment and lesser discomfort due to chemicals being infected in the body to kill the notorious cancer cells.
What it means: curcumin eases the symptoms of breast cancer by helping in management of pain, swelling and redness of the breasts.
This process is accomplished by the ability of curcumin to control inflammation and multidrug resistance of the cells in breast cancer that ultimately makes the therapy more effective and less discomforting.
D) Curcumin exerts chemopreventive actions on the breast cells against recurrence of cancer after therapy (chemotherapy/surgery)
Treating breast cancer is a tedious task. But preventing it from recurring after therapy is even more difficult. In many cases, the tumour returns, especially when the cancer cells from the diseases manage to metastasize and affect other tissues.
In ER/PR positive cancers, recurrence of tumours can be prevented by giving endocrine therapy for a long time after treatment so that the hormonal balance is maintained and the cells do not start dividing due to the hormonal imbalance.
In HER positive breast cancer cases, Herceptin is given after the therapy is completed. However, several major side effects of herceptin have been identified and it is still under trial to find the exact time up to which it is safe for the patient to be on herceptin therapy after the cancer is treated.
In the worst case, triple negative breast cancer cases do not have any option to prevent the recurrence of cancer. There are no definite therapies established that can be given after the cancer is treated so that it doesn’t occur again .
Several studies have shown that curcumin, because of its anti inflammatory, anti oxidative, pro apoptotic and cytostatic (ability to stop cell division) properties, can prevent the breast tissue and help in reduction of the probability of recurrence of cancer.
Piperine is the active ingredient in black pepper. Combined together in food or dietary supplements, piperine and curcumin seem to be able to target and kill breast cancer stem cells. They also do not have toxic side effects and can be safely used. This combination seems to be more effective on non-estrogen sensitive breast cancer.
Curcumin exerts protective effects on the cells, keeps a check on their signalling and growth and makes sure that the process of apoptosis is well regulated and happening when needed in the cells of breast tissue, preventing the occurrence of cancer again after therapy.
What it means: curcumin from turmeric helps in preventing the recurrence of tumours after therapy in the breast tissues or other organs of the body (if the cancer was metastatic), by exerting its anti inflammatory and growth controlling activities on the cells.
It regulates the cell division, cell death, signalling and inflammation in these cells and protects the tissues from dietary and environmental chemicals or residual cancer cells from affecting the normal cells again , .
E) Helps in recovery from surgery
Surgery is one of the ways used to treat breast cancer if everything else does not work. There are several ways turmeric can help in such cases.
1. Helps in pain
Turmeric is an excellent postoperative painkiller with little or no side effects at all. Its anti-inflammatory properties can help great deal in handling inflammation and swelling after surgery.
Another way turmeric helps is that reduces sensitivity to pain. Thus it acts as acts as an antinociceptive agent. Infact studies suggest that turmeric is better painkiller than most available in the market and with no side effects at all.
2. Helps wound healing
Wound healing is very important after surgery. Due to various factors such as age or existing disorders this may be delayed.
Studies show that turmeric can help in wound healing. Its anti-oxidative properties prevents cell damage due to reactive oxygen.
3. Helps cardiovascular and respiratory systems
Cardiovascular and respiratory complications may arise after breast cancer surgery.
Few of the heart problems one is susceptible to after surgery are hypertension (increased blood pressure) and myocardial ischemia (decrease in blood flow to heart due to blockage in blood vessels). Turmeric is known to help here.
Further turmeric oil is found to be useful in respiratory complications after surgery are caused due to reduced cough reflex and accumulation of secretions in the throat.
4. Helps fight depression and fatigue
Post surgical depression / post-operative fatigue is caused due to anesthesia, medications, pain, constipation due to medications and a general state of disorientation.
In breast cancer surgeries, depression is even more common.
What it means: Turmeric can help in several ways in post operative healing process of breast cancer surgery including pain management, inflammation management, wound healing, post-operative fatigue, depression, etc.
Is turmeric effective for all kinds of breast cancers?
As explained above, breast cancer is classified majorly in 3 types, ER/PR (estrogen pr progesterone receptor) positive, HER positive and triple negative.
Though turmeric effectively acts on cancer cells and helps in healing the disease, but the question arises whether the herb acts equally well on all the three types of breast cancers? The answer is affirmative.
Research has shown that curcumin exerts deferentially effective properties on the three different types of breast cancers and heals the disorders with equal efficiency.
In ER/PR positive breast cancer cells, curcumin reduces the estrogen responsiveness in the cancer cells by acting on the estrogen receptors present on these cells.
Consequently, it affects and regulates the downstream signalling pathways and uncontrolled growth of these cells which previously was dysregulated by the exposure to estrogen or over activation of estrogen receptors .
Similarly, curcumin regulates the expression of HER-2 protein in the HER positive breast cancer cells. In this type of breast cancer, the protein HER2 is over expressed which cause uncontrolled division of the cells leading to cancer.
Curcumin inhibits the over expression of HER2 protein in the cancer cells which automatically regulates its division and growth, leading to healing of cancer or its prevention after therapy. In fact, it has shown the effects comparable to herceptin, which is used post therapy to prevent the recurrence of HER positive cancer .
Lastly, curcumin has also been proven to regulate the growth of ER negative or triple negative breast cancer cells. In these cells, mostly, the cancer occurs due to the presence of mutated BRCA genes and post therapy prevention of recurrence is also questionable.
The treatment of triple negative breast cancer is limited especially after relapse and curcumin has been proven to be a ray of hope for a non toxic treatment for this type of breast cancer.
Though it does not correct BRCA gene, it does positively cause cell death in the cancer cells and positively inhibit the growth of the transformed cells in the breast. This also prevents the future tumour formation.
Curcumin has also been shown to regulate the EFGR signalling pathway which is primarily dysregulated in the triple negative breast cancer cells and lead to their excessive division.
What it means: curcumin is a wonder herb that is able to treat all three types of breast cancers – ER/PR positive, HER positive and triple negative or ER negative cancers.
Though its efficacy in the triple negative cancer cells is a little less as compared to the other two, because it shows lasting effects on the other two but not on triple negative cells; it can be considered an effective treatment for all types of breast cancers.
Turmeric in Diet
In Asian countries, the incidences of breast cancer are believed to be low since turmeric is used widely in Asian cuisine.
Studies have been conducted in Atlanta, Georgia on the impact of curcumin, which is the active ingredient in turmeric, on breast cancer. Pre-clinical breast cancer models were studied and promising results have emerged on the ability of curcumin to inhibit tumorigenesis (formation of tumors) and cancer cell proliferation.
Curcumin is able to target vital genes that are responsible for apoptosis, angiogenesis, metastasis and cell cycle. The study reveals the therapeutic and chemopreventive abilities of curcumin in breast cancer models.
Sometimes breast cancer can be used by exposure to pesticides like DDT or endosulfane. Studies have been conducted on how a combination of genistein and curcumin tow natural products from soybeans and turmeric respectively can inhibit growth of MCF-7 breast cancer cells.
Pesticides will always be present in our diet or the environment and it is not possible to completely avoid exposure to them. The results find that including soybeans and turmeric in our diet may prevent hormone-related cancers like breast cancer, caused due to exposure to such pesticides.
The best way to include turmeric is to include it in your regular diet as a spice etc. You can find several recipes using turmeric over web and on this portal.
Some great turmeric recipes can be found here>
The dosage of turmeric depends on the medical condition and the supplement used. It is not recommended for children. For adults, the normal dosage is 400-600mg a day of standardized curcumin powder.
The dosage for cut root, tincture, dried powdered root and fluid extracts are different. Turmeric can be combined with black pepper to improve its absorption rates and anti-inflammatory effects.
8g per day of curcumin for a limited period has been well tolerated in treatment of cancer as a prophylaxis and in women with a breast cancer family history.
Turmeric used for cooking is absolutely safe for everyone to consume. The safety of curcumin used as supplements is still being investigated.
Large doses of curcumin are required to treat cancer.
Sometimes, taken over a long time, this could cause skin problems, indigestion, nausea or vomiting. To put things in perspective, these are very minor side effects as compared to potential side effects of anti-cancer drugs.
Anyone with diabetes, gall bladder problems or are pregnant or breastfeeding must avoid turmeric supplements. Turmeric can also react adversely with anti-coagulant drugs and medications to reduce stomach acid.
Lastly, it is good to consult your doctor if you plan to include turmeric as a treatment for breast cancer.
Turmeric is one of the safest and most effective herbs that is evolving as a potential therapeutic agent to treat several complex disorders including different cancers.
Breast cancers, of all types, are one of the most researched disorders and it has been fully established that curcumin exerts potential healing effects on these cancer cells.
Turmeric, through its anti inflammatory and anti oxidant properties, helps control growth of the breast cancer cells and prevents its recurrence after treatment.
It also increases the effects of the chemotherapy by overcoming the drug resistance. It can thus be considered a novel, non toxic alternative for the treatment of breast cancer.