Radiation or “radiotherapy” is a common treatment for breast cancer.
Fortunately, radiation treatment of one breast does not appear to raise the risk of developing cancer in the other breast.
But breast radiation often causes dermatitis … the painful, irritating rashes that afflict most radiotherapy patients and can force a premature halt to radiotherapy.
According to Paul Okunieff, M.D., of the University of Rochester’s Wilmot Cancer Center, “Nearly all cancer patients who get radiation treatment experience some form of skin damage – from mild sunburn all the way to blisters – that is painful for many. If we can find a simple way to help prevent that, it would make treatment a bit easier.”
A double-edged sword
Ironically, prior exposure to medical radiation raises the lifelong risk of breast cancer.
The risk depends on the dose of radiation and the age at which it is received, with the highest risk occurring when radiation treatment was used during puberty.
Exposure to radiation, such as from chest x-rays, may exacerbate the risk for women with cancer-predisposing BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes … especially those who were x-rayed before 20 years of age.
New hope for reducing radiation-induced dermatitis comes from a clinical trial testing curcumin.
Curcumin supplements contain the trio of polyphenol-type compounds that gives turmeric root – and turmeric-infused curry powder – its bright yellow-orange color.
Lab experiments and preliminary clinical studies indicate that supplemental curcumin supports immune and brain health in uniquely powerful ways.
The recent trial was prompted by an earlier animal study from researchers at the University of Rochester’s Wilmot Cancer Center.
Mouse study laid the groundwork
Seven years ago, researchers from Wilmot Cancer Center (WCC) conducted a study in mice, to see whether dietary curcumin might protect skin from radiotherapy-induced burns and blisters (Okunieff P et al. 2006).
A team of WCC researchers led by Ivan Ding, M.D., studied the impact of various doses of curcumin on the skin of mice with breast cancer that underwent radiotherapy.
For the study, 200 mice with breast cancer were given three different doses of curcumin for five to seven days.
On the fifth day, mice were given a single dose of radiation and scientists waited 20 days to assess skin damage.
The difference in skin damage was dramatic. “There were far fewer blisters or burns on the mice who had been given curcumin,” Ding said.
Dr. Okunieff, chief of radiation oncology at WCC, added, “This is significant because skin damage is a real problem for patients undergoing radiation to treat their tumors. If a non-toxic, natural substance can help prevent this damage and enhance the effectiveness of our radiation, that’s a winning situation.”
The scientists also found that curcumin suppressed development of new cells in the area of tumor, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of radiation treatment.
The authors opined that curcumin supplements could help prevent or reduce skin damage in human patients, and called for clinical trials.
And their call has been answered – at least in a preliminary way – with recent publication of a small “pilot” trial conducted by other University of Rochester researchers.
Preliminary trial affirms curcumin’s radiation-protection potential
The very first trial to test curcumin’s protective effects against radiotherapy-induced dermatitis comes from the University of Rochester Medical Center ... and it produced encouraging results(Ryan JL et al. 2013).
Julie L. Ryan, Ph.D., MPH, and her colleagues recruited 30 women with breast cancer who’d been scheduled for radiotherapy.
The women were divided evenly in two groups, which took assigned supplements during radiation treatment:
Placebo supplements, three times a day
Curcumin supplements – 2 grams, three times a day
The curcumin group scored significantly lower on Radiation Dermatitis Severity scale, compared with the curcumin-free controls (2.6 vs. 3.4).
In addition, the women who took curcumin were much less likely to suffer “moist desquamation” compared with those who did not take curcumin (28.6% vs. 87.5%).
(The term moist desquamation describes a common effect of radiotherapy in which the skin thins and weeps, and may slough off, exposing its sensitive dermal layer.)
The highly positive outcomes of this trial led the URMC team to conduct a larger trial, which they hope will confirm curcumin's effectiveness.
In the meantime, the URMC team suggests that women prescribed radiotherapy should consider taking curcumin supplements, starting just before and throughout treatment.
Supplemental curcumin may exert complementary anti-tumor effects, as described in these articles from our archive:
“Curcumin + Omega-3 Curbed Breast Cancer”, “Spices May Boost Breast Health”, “Curry Spices vs. Colorectal Cancer”, and “Turmeric Power, Part I: Colorful Spice Seen to Combat Cancer Strongly”.
The curry spice may offer an even broader slate of benefits, judging by research we reported in “Curcumin Rivals Exercise for Artery Health”, “Curcumin Trial Reveals Broad Benefits”, “Curry Spice + Omega-3 Curbed Spine Injuries in Rats”, “Turmeric’s Yellow Hue Helps Brain and Joint Health”, and “Turmeric Power, Part II: Curry Spice May Curb Alzheimer’s”.
Sadly, the curcumin in standard curcumin supplements is poorly absorbed.
Look for supplements that contain turmeric essential oils as well as curcumin, because clinical tests show that their curcumin gets absorbed six to seven times better.
And cook dishes that include fresh turmeric and some healthful fat (e.g., milk, yogurt, or low-omega-6 oils), which will deliver loads of highly absorbable curcumin.
National Cancer Institute. (NCI). Breast Cancer Prevention. Accessed at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/breast/Patient/page3
Okunieff P, Xu J, Hu D, Liu W, Zhang L, Morrow G, Pentland A, Ryan JL, Ding I. Curcumin protects against radiation-induced acute and chronic cutaneous toxicity in mice and decreases mRNA expression of inflammatory and fibrogenic cytokines. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2006 Jul 1;65(3):890-8.
Ryan JL, Heckler CE, Ling M, Katz A, Williams JP, Pentland AP, Morrow GR. Curcumin for Radiation Dermatitis: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial of Thirty Breast Cancer Patients. Radiat Res. 2013 Jun 7. [Epub ahead of print]
University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC). Common Spice May Protect Skin During Radiation Therapy for Cancer. October 7, 2002. Accessed at http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/index.cfm?id=125