Turmeric Curcumin and Pancreatic Cancer

Image Credit: Sara Marlowe / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Treating Pancreatic Cancer with Turmeric Curcumin

Pancreatic cancer is among the most aggressive forms of human cancer, characterized by a very high mortality rate. It represents the fourth leading cause of cancer death in United States, killing 32,000 people annually. With a five-year survival rate of only three percent and a median survival rate of less than six months, pancreatic cancer carries one of the poorest prognoses. The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is one of the worst things a doctor ever has to tell a patient. The only FDA-approved therapies for it, Gemcitabine and Erlotinib, produce objective responses in less than ten percent of patients, while causing severe side-effects in the majority. There is a desperate need for new options.

Clinical research to test new treatments is split into phases. Phase I trials are just to make sure the treatment is safe, to see how much you can give before it becomes toxic. Curcumin, the natural yellow pigment in the spice turmeric has passed a number of those. In fact, there was so little toxicity, the dosing appeared limited only by the number of pills patients were willing to swallow.

Phase II trials are conducted to see if the drug actually has an effect. Curcumin did, in 2 of the 21 patients that were evaluated. One patient had a 73 percent tumor reduction, but the effect was short-lived. One lesion remained small, but a curcumin-resistant tumor clone emerged. The other patient, who had a stable disease for over 18 months, showed slow improvement over a year. The only time that patient’s cancer markers bumped up was during a brief three-week stint where the curcumin was stopped.

So, curcumin does seem to help some patients with pancreatic cancer, and most importantly, there appears to be little downside. No curcumin-related toxic effects were observed in up to doses of eight grams per day. What happens after eight grams? We don’t know because no one was willing to take that many pills. The patients were willing to go on one of the nastiest chemotherapy regimens on the planet, but didn’t want to be inconvenienced with swallowing a lot of capsules.

The only surefire way to beat pancreatic cancer is to prevent it in the first place. In 2010, I profiled a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the largest such study in history, which found that dietary fat of animal origin was associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk.

Which animal fat is the worst? The second largest study (highlighted in my video: Turmeric Curcumin and Pancreatic Cancer) has since chimed in to help answer that question. Researchers found that poultry was the worst, with 72 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer associated with every 50 grams of daily poultry consumption. Fifty grams is just about a quarter of a chicken breast. The reason white meat came out worse than red may be because of the cooked meat carcinogens in chicken, the heterocyclic amines that build up in grilled and baked chicken. These mutagenic chemicals have been associated with a doubling of pancreatic cancer risk (See Estrogenic Cooked Meat Carcinogens).

Meat has been associated with significantly increased risk, whereas fake meat is associated with significantly less risk. Those who eat plant-based meats like veggie burgers or veggie dogs three or more times a week had less than half the risk of fatal pancreatic cancer. Legumes and dried fruit appear to be similarly protective.

My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. By the time the first symptom arose, a dull ache in his gut, it was too late. That’s why we need to work on preventing it.

I previously touched on pancreatic cancer prevention in Poultry Exposure Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer and attempts at pancreatic cancer treatment in Gerson Therapy for Cancer and Gerson-style Therapy vs. Chemotherapy.

For more on the heterocyclic amine cooked meat carcinogens:

I’ve done a bunch of videos on turmeric and various cancers:

And more on this amazing spice (and more to come):

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

31 responses to “Treating Pancreatic Cancer with Turmeric Curcumin

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  1. How is it that turmeric is always tested as a drug? And in those studies, little or nothing is said about the diet, over all (apparently, turmeric does little good if you keep on eating chicken). Will we ever see a study testing turmeric in conjunction with a whole foods vegan diet?

    1. I’d definitely like to see more studies with whole turmeric (even if it’s in capsule form) compared with isolated curcuminoids! Dr. Greger mentions in his book that he takes whole turmeric in a capsule when he’s “on the go” and can’t squeeze any dietary turmeric into his day, and he also mentions some limited research showing the whole herb may be more effective than just the curcumin.

    1. Interesting! That case study article was published in 2009. I wonder what the authors have been up to since then? It’s probably difficult to get funding for a study involving a generic medication and an over the counter nutritional supplement.

      1. Exactly! That is the sad part. I do believe Dr. Berkson is still practicing in NM. He also has a very successful protocol for reversing liver disease, including autoimmune hepatitis, using LDN, ALA, and milk thistle.

  2. One of the reasons for the low survivorship related to pancreatic cancer … is because we DON’T yet have anything to have an early diagnosis of it. Usually, people are not symptomatic until stage 3 or stage 4 … at which point, it is very difficulty to treat at those stages and mets. They are doing clinical trials to find an early diagnostic tool … who knows how long before that may be approved and utilized and covered by insurance. These spices you discuss have much research related to anti-inflammatory properties (if the herbs / spices are truly the curcumin / tumeric). They may eventually have good results related to treatment protocols. But we need to diagnose earlier to improve survivorship to such a horrible cancer … pancreatic cancer.

    1. Google the Oncoblot Test. It detects cancer very, very early, and there is a protocol for knocking it out before it becomes problematic. It’s an expensive test now – over $800 – but if our insurance companies and Medicare would pay attention and start paying for the test they could save zillions on later treatments for cancer that was not detected early, especially since those treatments are largely ineffective.

    2. FranOS: I don’t know if I agree with that. It sounds so logical, but after I watched the talk called The Two Most Misleading Numbers in Medicine (linked to below) from a Dr. McDougall Advanced Study Weekend, I got a whole new view of the concept/pros/cons of early diagnosis.

      If you ever get a chance to see the lecture, I’d be curious what your opinion is afterward.

      Here is the free talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcHQElKhWFc

      1. Thea: I just watched the video – wow, this is a fascinating presentation. Thank
        you so much for bringing this to our attention. I, too, will now see
        the value of an early diagnosis from a new perspective. The speaker
        explains in a very clear way how the manner in which statistics are
        presented can be very misleading. It reminds me of a book that was
        popular many years ago called ”How to Lie with Statistics”, which
        covered very similar topics. As a retired mathematician, I can
        appreciate the subtleties of the logical reasoning the speaker uses
        to explain very clearly how summarizing a research study by using a
        simple percentage can be very misleading to the casual reader. I
        thought his extreme example of “diagnosing everyone as having
        cancer, yields the highest 5-year survival rate!” was a unique way
        of pointing out the fallacy of using only a simple percentage to
        describe the value of an early diagnosis.

        1. HalTheVegan: I so agree. The speaker does such a great job of explaining the concepts. You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand these points. But I’m happy to hear your reaction since you would be able to see if there were flaws in his arguments better than I.
          It sure does strike a clear “aha moment” when he makes that point you repeated about diagnosing everyone and the 5 year statistic. I hate to harbor conspiracy theories, but after seeing that talk, it sure spawned a few in me.
          He’s entertaining too. I wish we could get more people to see this talk.

          1. Yes, he is a very entertaining (and humorous) speaker and explains the concepts so well. After seeing this talk, I will certainly pay more attention to the details of these kinds of statistics in the future. You’re probably right about a little conspiracy going on, but I think part of it, too, is that the media just like to summarize everything into short sound bites and show exciting statistics to attract attention. But in this case the old saying definitely applies: “the devil is in the details”. :-) Thanks again for sharing.

          2. Hi Thea: I just watched another related video of one of Dr H. Gilbert Welch’s talks on youtube, entitled “Overdiagnosed – Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health”. Another fascinated talk that explains clearly the risk-benefit approach to getting screened for many different diseases, and how the “standards” have changed over the years. A lot has to do with technology, but the other component seems to be more the business model of the medical establishment. I imagine that Dr Welch has as much disdain from the medical community as Dr Greger ;-) Here’s the link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-DnznA0m9k

            1. HaltheVegan: I wanted to reply to you after I saw the video/talk. I finally got around to it and it’s awesome! Thanks a bunch for bringing this talk to my attention. Very helpful. Now, I wish the various factions of the medical establishment would watch it too…

  3. We always appreciate Dr. Greger’s post on pancreatic CA. A benign comment: It’s curious that he doesn’t mention why the other 19 people in the study were not evaluated. As for starting a daily dose of dietary tumeric, I will search the posts here for recommended amounts, as well as capsule dose recommendations and efficacy considerations for each.

    1. I don’t believe Dr. Greger is specifically hiding anything by not mentioning the other study participants. If you click on the article linked above, the abstract doesn’t mention the other participants either. I’m not able to get access to the full text of the article.

  4. OK, since my wife and I went to a vegan diet about 5 years ago, I think I’ve eaten meat twice. I honestly don’t miss meat, but I miss certain flavors. I recently discovered a soy-based kinda almost sausage look-alike product at Trader Joe’s and I purchased some. Flavors are akin to what goes into piggy sausage without any animal. After reading this article, my wife dashed to the refrigerator to toss my soy sausage. Does anyone know if soy products pose a problem?

    1. Michael: If you research soy on this site, you will generally find favorable information. But the studies showing soy to be healthful are usually about traditional soy products, such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame, and miso. http://nutritionfacts.org/topics/soy
      Highly processed foods with soy in them typically contain problematic foods such as extracted oils and isolated soy protein (which is not a whole food soy product and which may raise IGF-1 levels as much as dairy). So, they are generally not the healthiest of foods.
      I offer you these thoughts to soften the news: In my experience and opinion, there is a wide range of fake meat products with some being relatively healthier than others. And even if you have one of the less healthy ones, having it sometimes is not a bad thing in the context of an otherwise whole plant food diet. Why not get it for yourself as an occasional treat?
      Also, for those people who are newbies out there, note that some of the best experts, including Dr. Barnard, point out the value of the fake meat products as important transition foods. Those foods can help a person make the transition from a SAD diet to a whole plant food based diet. (Though at 5 years, I don’t know if you get to call yourself in transition. :-) But certainly you could reasonably find that having some soy sausage now and then helps you stay on your healthy diet. That’s a good thing…)
      Finally, I offer this thought: There are a bazillion and one recipes out there for making vegan sausages yourself. While these recipes usually contain non-whole foods like gluten flour, they are usually a lot healthier than what can be found in the store and some of them are very easy to make. I think the sausage recipe in the Vegan On The Cheap book is *delicious.* The key is to keep trying recipes until you find the flavor/spice combination you like.
      Also note that some people have reported on this site that simply adding sausage type spices to dishes that have say sauces that have chunks of firm tofu satisfy the very type of itch you are talking about. This idea is taking the above idea a step further to be 100% healthy so you could eat it as often as you like. I think you have a lot of options to explore while you use Trader Jo’s product occasionally to transition you to a healthier option in the future.
      What do you think? Does that help?

      1. Greatly! Especially adding the “sausage type spices” to foods. I appreciate your answer, and I’m going to try it.

  5. Dr. Greger or staff (if you’re reading), you mentioned in your tumeric and pancreatic cancer email article (5-31-16) that your grandfather died of the disease. If your father and uncle died of it, as did my friend’s (but not his grandfather), would you get a CAT scan to see if you have the disease? My healthy, active friend (65) has been vegetarian for 45+ years, and mostly vegan, too, (no dairy & eggs) for around 4 years. I know that by the time the disease is diagnosed, there’s not much hope. Diet & lifestyle don’t always override genes. Thx! P.S. Love your work.

  6. This is in response to the factors that lead to pancreatic cancer. This is a study looking at many of the factors in the diet including supplements. For both men and women obesity is a big factor, but eating a lot of starch is as big a factor as eating poultry and fish for men. There was not effect of eating poultry and fish for women. Very interesting. Worth a look

  7. http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/94/17/1293.short
    Here is another study of the nurses who have been followed forever. They found obesity and insulin resistance to be one of the key factors related to pancreatic cancer and a high glycemic load or fructose intake coupled with insulin resistance increased the risk of pancreatic cancer by 250 to 300 percent. This only makes sense because what stresses out an organ is often what leads to cancer in that organ. Insulin resistance causes the pancreas to produce more insulin and high glycemic foods do the same. Recent studies also show fructose can be readily used by pancreatic cancers to grow more tumor cells. Just having diabetes significantly increases the risk. Steve Jobs by the way was a big fruit juice drinker and fruit juice eater.

  8. The pancreas is naturally shielded against any form of radiation or chemotherapy. Vitamin D improved survival in at least one study. Phosphorus, like from pumpkin seeds, dark cola, bone broth, or supplements, seems to be involved in cancer. If this is true, I feel bad for cancer patients as they might have ADHD or feelings of prosecution. In a study in the 1920s, radioactive Arsenic was used to treat cancer. Rice and Brussels sprouts, containing arsenic, perhaps ironically have been labeled carcinogenic when they are in my opinion cancer fighters. In a pubmed study, there was complete remission of pancreatic cancer after the introduction of Phosphorus 32. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10440189 Complete remission of nonresectable pancreatic cancer after infusional colloidal phosphorus-32 brachytherapy, external beam radiation therapy, and 5-fluorouracil: a preliminary report.

  9. Hi, perhaps Indians are among the most conspicuous consumers of turmeric in their daily diet so wonder what the rates of pancreatic cancer are in that culture. Does anyone happen to know?

  10. I need any and all recommendations the Doctor has recommended for pancreatic cancer.
    My parent recently got it, and he’s changing everything in hopes of fighting this.
    Please help.

  11. My father is starting chemo for pancreatic cancer.
    The doctor claims eating foods rich in anti oxidants will protect the cancer cells.

    Should he stop consumption until he’s done with chemo

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