From Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester

By Pat Battaglia

People have used ginger and turmeric for thousands of years to season their food and to ease common ailments. Readily available in fresh and dried, ground form at affordable prices in supermarkets and specialty stores, both spices are obtained from the rhizome (a sort of modified underground stem) of their respective plants, and are members of the same plant family. Both have been studied by local researchers interested in certain properties they contain that can help ease some of the side effects of cancer treatment.

Two common side effects of treatment are nausea from chemotherapy and dermatitis from radiation therapy. Although antiemetics are routinely prescribed to Ginger and Turmeric  Local Researchers Investigate Ancient Spices to Aid Cancer Patients help patients with nausea, over 70% of patients undergoing chemotherapy experience nausea.1 Radiation dermatitis occurs in approximately 95% of patients receiving radiotherapy,2 even though enhanced skin care measures are often suggested to prevent or ease the condition.  soup

Ginger is one of the most commonly used condiments in the world and many medicinal properties have been attributed to it throughout the ages. Its mechanism of action isn’t entirely understood, but both ginger and its cousin, turmeric, are generally regarded as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration.3 Among other uses, ginger is a traditional remedy for nausea such as morning sickness in pregnancy or motion – By Pat Battaglia sickness. In order to study its antinausea characteristics under carefully controlled conditions, the University of Rochester was the home base of a phase II/III clinical trial that drew participants from private practice oncology groups throughout the country to investigate the effects of ginger supplementation on cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and receiving standard antiemetic medication. Headed by Julie L. Ryan, PhD, MPH, an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Dermatology and Radiation Oncology and member of the Community Clinical Oncology Program (CCOP) Research Base at the University of Rochester Medical Center, ginger supplements were taken by patients three days before chemotherapy and continued for three days afterward, for a total of six days. It was found that ginger reduced the severity of acute nausea in these patients.1 Interestingly, lower doses of ginger seemed most effective. While prior studies had not found ginger beneficial in this setting, researchers for this latest study theorize that beginning ginger supplements before chemo, which had not been done previously, was an important element of their success.

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Lesley James, M.D., a board certified family physician who is also certified by the American Board of Integrative Medicine and offers integrative oncology services, recommends her patients in chemotherapy begin using low doses of ginger three days before their treatments, usually in combination with prescription antiemetics. “I find that it is not as effective if taken as needed, which is how many people tend to use it,” she says, and continues, “I always advise my patients to call me with any side effects or nausea. I rarely get calls.” Dr. James prefers lower doses of ginger, as higher doses were shown to be less effective and can cause heartburn and worsening of GI symptoms in those undergoing chemotherapy.

Turmeric, the warm and peppery spice commonly included in curries, contains an active compound called curcumin that gives it its bright yellow color and has been studied for its uses in cancer patients. In another local research connection, the same Dr. Ryan, along with colleagues who included Marilyn Ling, M.D., a Radiation Oncologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial and found that breast cancer patients who took curcumin supplements during radiation experienced reduced severity of radiation dermatitis.2 The regimen was well tolerated and no significant adverse events were reported. The data obtained from this small study, which involved a sampling of thirty patients, established a positive safety profile for curcumin and will provide the basis for larger trials to confirm these results and determine the optimal form and dose of curcumin.

Having established its safety and efficacy, Dr. Ling currently uses curcumin in her patients who are undergoing radiation therapy. According to Dr. James, “Patients of mine who have used this protocol have told me that the techs note they have very little dermatitis during their treatments.”

Cancer treatments are, by necessity, strong. They can and do save lives, but their side effects can impact quality of life. While cancer patients should always advise their medical team of any food supplements they may take, as unwanted interactions can occur, the study of traditional healing modalities in the safe, effective management of the side effects of cancer treatment is seen as a welcome development by many, patients and health care providers alike.

1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/ PMC3361530/

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/ PMC3998827/

3. http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/syllabus/gras.html