Turmeric – the dangers with hormone-sensitive breast cancer

Did you know taking some supplements, such as turmeric, with your conventional oncology therapy could interfere with your treatment? Kyara Bergstrom tells us more.


Turmeric is the second most common complementary therapy I am asked about. The first is cannabis. 

Also known as Indian saffron, jiang huang, haridra and haldi, turmeric belongs to the ginger family and is used often in cooking, e.g. in curry. 

The golden orange root is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and has become popular to use as an alternative treatment for cancer. The main ingredient is curcumin or diferuloyl methane. 

Turmeric is generally used for arthritis; heartburn; joint pain; stomach pain; Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis; bypass surgery; haemorrhage; diarrhoea; intestinal gas; stomach bloating; loss of appetite; jaundice; premenstrual syndrome (PMS); liver problems; Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection; stomach ulcers; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); gallbladder disorders; high cholesterol; lichen planus (skin condition); skin inflammation from radiation treatment; and fatigue.

There are a few studies showing that curcumin may have anti-cancer effects but currently further studies are needed, therefore it should not be used as a cancer treatment. 

In most of these studies, another conventional treatment was added with the curcumin. Generally other chemotherapy agents.

The not-so-good side of turmeric

Firstly, a major challenge in the use of curcumin as a treatment for cancer is its bioavailability. It’s not water-soluble and has been shown to be poorly absorbed, rapidly metabolise and be eliminated quickly.

As with all supplements or herbal treatments, this too can have side effects or interfere with your cancer treatment. This does not include cooking with it, as the quantity used won’t be a large enough dose to interfere. Though, people have reported stomach pain when eating too much of it. Plus, there have been reports of skin problems when taking it for a long time.

Secondly, curcumin may act like the hormone oestrogen. So, in theory turmeric can make hormone-sensitive cancers worse. There have been laboratory studies showing that turmeric may interfere with chemotherapy agents, like cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin. 

Thirdly, turmeric can interfere with the absorption of tamoxifen (hormonal blockade for hormone-sensitive breast cancers). 

Lastly, curcumin can also act as a blood thinner, or lower blood glucose levels. It’s therefore safer to not take turmeric before surgery and use with caution if you have diabetes. 

Until there are more confirmed studies in the safety of curcumin and hormone-sensitive breast cancers, I would recommend using with caution (if at all). Speak to your oncologist about using it if you’re on hormone blockades and/or chemotherapy. 

Kyara Bergstrom is the head of research at Netcare Breast Care Centre. She is also the COO of the Pink Parasol Project (www.pinkparasol.co.za), a website-based directory listing conventional and complementary therapists and practitioners.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Kyara Bergstrom

Kyara Bergstrom is the head of research at Netcare Breast Care Centre. She is also the COO of the Pink Parasol Project (www.pinkparasol.co.za), a website-based directory listing conventional and complementary therapists and practitioners.


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