The son-in-law of a dear friend was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months back. I have been reading-up on it and keeping my eyes open for updates. Contributor Lisa Hill researched lifestyle choices that can increase—or reduce—the risk of developing this insidious cancer:
Addressing Lifestyle Factors Linked to Increased Risk of Pancreatic Cancer
By Lisa Hill
According to the National Cancer Institute an estimated 45,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer will occur in the US this year and it is one of a small number of cancers whose incidence rate is increasing faster than 1% each year. With a five-year survival rate of just 4%, it is essential that awareness of the risk factors for this malignancy is increased; while Patrick Swayze’s diagnosis with the disease in 2008 made more of us aware of this cancer, publicity remains limited in comparison to the more common cancers. Although the risk of this type of cancer is influenced by age and genetic background, a range of lifestyle factors have been linked to its development. Here we consider those thought to be of influence.
Smokers are at least twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as non-smokers and as many as 30% of cases of exocrine cancer – the form that affects the part of the pancreas that produces the enzymes needed to digest what we eat – are believed to be caused directly as a result of tobacco use. Researchers think that the carcinogenic agents in cigarette smoke are transported via the bloodstream to the pancreas where they cause damage to its cells resulting in a tumor. While admittedly it is not easy to give up smoking, doing so helps to significantly reduce the risk of its development; after ten years of being free from cigarettes, the risk of pancreatic cancer falls to that of someone who has never used tobacco products. The availability of smoking cessation counseling in conjunction with nicotine replacement therapy or prescription medication can help those wishing to quit cigarettes, though natural aids such as exercise and relaxation techniques can also help to increase the chances of success.
Increased body weight
Carrying excess weight is also linked to increased likelihood of pancreatic cancer. While the exact mechanism for this is still to be discovered, it is known that adipose tissue releases a range of signalling molecules, some of which influence cell growth, an alteration of which give rise to cancerous cells. Obesity is also linked to an increased level of inflammation within the body, which is believed to play a role in the development of cancer. Another observation has been that pancreatic cancer is more common amongst people with type 2 diabetes, which is more likely to develop when someone is overweight; though why diabetes influences pancreatic cancer risk is unclear. Although research into the influence of exercise on the risk of pancreatic cancer has so far been inconclusive, this is a helpful adjunct to dietary changes to aid weight loss.
High alcohol intake
Heavy drinking has been identified as another risk factor, with up to 5% of cases of pancreatic cancer thought to be attributable to the consumption of alcohol. This may relate to the fact that heavy alcohol use is linked to the development of chronic pancreatitis (this is the causative factor in around 70% of cases), with this condition increasing the chance of pancreatic cancer; heavy drinkers with pancreatitis are around 80% more likely to develop the cancer. However, as pancreatic cancer can occur with high alcohol intakes in the absence of pancreatitis, there must be other mechanisms at work. It has been suggested that free radicals produced from the metabolism of alcohol may induce cancerous changes, that alcohol use may potentiate the effect of other risk factors such as smoking or that the poor diet associated with excess alcohol, which is lacking in micronutrients, may leave drinkers vulnerable. It is therefore advisable to stick within the guidelines of no more than one alcoholic drink daily if you are female and up to two daily if you are male.
While the exact role that diet plays in the development of pancreatic cancer or its prevention is still under study, some dietary factors have been identified as potentially relevant to this. One of these is meat intake, with some research showing that a high intake of red and processed meat can adversely affect the risk of developing this cancer; this may in part relate to the high content of heterocyclic amines, found in cooked and especially well-done meats, which are believed to trigger cancerous changes in cells. The fat content of red and processed meats may also be important, as some work into the association between fat intake and cancer risk has shown a greater consumption of fat from animal sources to be linked to increased likelihood of pancreatic cancer. Meanwhile, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables has been identified as possibly protective against its development in some studies, which may be explained by their antioxidant content. While caution is still needed with regards to the extent to which diet is implicated in pancreatic cancer, a well-balanced diet, which includes a greater proportion of plant-based foods, is advisable for general health. For protein, emphasis should be placed on pulses, fish, poultry, eggs and low-fat dairy foods, with red unprocessed meat included in moderation.
Certainly further research is needed into this area, but taking steps to address these lifestyle factors may not only help to reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer, but are in line with advice for the prevention of other chronic health problems, potentially providing all round benefits.
Thanks, Lisa! Too bad there isn’t more doctors can do once someone develops pancreatic cancer. Find it a few months too late and it’s a tough road ahead. Still, I know several patients that have survived longer than their oncologists predicted.
Feel good and keep smiling! Pat