What is the Link Between Pancreatic Cancer and Diabetes?

Pancreatic cancer is certainly not shy to the media, having affected some very well-known individuals and celebrities. Alex Trebek and Steve Jobs are two celebrities that come to mind when people think of pancreatic cancer. As a result, we are aware of the severity of the condition: pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. In fact, it is the fourth leading cause of cancer in the United States.1

Given the pancreas is impacted in people with diabetes, it leads to a question of whether there is an association between pancreatic cancer and diabetes. Many clinical studies have attempted to find an answer to this question.

Is there an association between pancreatic cancer and diabetes?

Many studies have shown a link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer.2 What that link exactly means, however, is the question. A study analyzing the pooled results of numerous studies showed that people with diabetes - whether it be type 1 or type 2 - have a two-times higher risk of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.3

Other studies have proposed that having diabetes is not the cause of pancreatic cancer; but rather, is the result of developing pancreatic cancer. In fact, people who present with weight loss, a recent diagnosis of diabetes, and who have other risk factors for pancreatic cancer are often screened for pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors

The top three risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer are: cigarette smoking, having an elevated fasting plasma glucose reading, and being overweight.4

  • Tobacco smoking - it is estimated that 11-32% of all pancreatic deaths are caused by smoking. This risk increases with higher consumption, and decreases when people quit smoking.5 In fact, one study showed that smoking cessation results in a 50% reduction in risk at the two-year mark of abstinence. At 10-15 years of abstinence, the risk fell to that level of non-smokers!6
  • Weight and activity levels - studies have shown that there is a link between being overweight, a lack of physical activity, and pancreatic cancer.7
  • Alcohol intake - heavy alcohol use increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.8
  • Diet - the link between diet and cancer has been long studied and debated. A few studies have shown that a diet high in processed meats increases the risk. Other studies have shown that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is protective.
  • Family history -  approximately 5-10% of people with pancreatic cancer have a family history of the disease.9

Diabetes alone does not lead to pancreatic cancer

In conclusion, a diagnosis of diabetes alone does not mean that you will develop pancreatic cancer. While there are many risk factors that are out of our hands, it is important to focus on the factors that can be controlled. For example, steps can be taken to reduce alcohol and tobacco smoking consumption. Squeezing in a 30-minute walk daily and choosing more home-cooked meals will also lower risk factors.

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