Researchers finally uncover possible links to pancreatic cancer

Unfortunately, many, if not all, of us have been through the horror, whether ourselves or with someone we love a lump in the breast, a swelling of the prostate, or some other symptom that could mean cancer.

Through education and advancements in conventional and alternative medicine, early detection and new treatment options have been able to greatly improve survival rates for many when it is cancer.

This hasn’t been the case for pancreatic cancer, however. There are no early warning signs, and according to the National Cancer Institute it has the “poorest likelihood of survival among all major [cancers].” In fact, it’s estimated that this year alone about 29,200 cases will be diagnosed, while 28,900 people will die from it.

The American Cancer Society explains that because of the size and location of the pancreas, it is one of the most difficult cancers to detect. The pancreas is a 6-inch-long fish-shaped organ that sits behind your stomach, surrounded by the small intestine. It has two main purposes: 1) it produces the digestive enzymes that break down food and 2) it’s the source of hormones (insulin and glucagon) that are important in controlling the amount of sugar in the blood.

While smoking is the single greatest risk factor (accounting for 25-30% of all pancreatic cancer cases), the majority of risk factors identified have been outside of the patient’s control – things like age, height, and ethnic group. Two recent studies, however, offer some hope for prevention by identifying two more possible risk factors that can be addressed.

As reported in the August 22nd issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at Harvard found a strong link between obesity and pancreatic cancer. They examined the data of over 165,000 subjects for 10 to 20 years. In that period of time, 350 of the patients developed pancreatic cancer.

When the researchers looked more closely, they noticed that the subjects who were clinically obese (or close to it) had a 72 percent higher risk for pancreatic cancer than those who were not obese.

At this stage, researchers aren’t sure why this link exists. Nevertheless, the authors of the study make some recommendations. First and most obvious, losing weight will lower your risk of contracting cancer of the pancreas. But exercise seems to diminish the danger, as well. The patients who were obese but active had a risk 41 percent lower than those who were obese and inactive. (Here active is defined as two hours or more of moderate exercise per week.)

The other recent study was published in June by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. It found a strong association between pancreatic cancer and H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori). H. pylori is a bacterium that has been proven to be the cause of peptic ulcer in the majority of cases.

Participants of the study were drawn from the 29,133 male smokers living in Finland, aged 50 to 69, who participated in a trial called the Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene (ATBC) Cancer Prevention Study. As smoking is the most consistent risk factor for pancreatic cancer, a larger number of subjects developed pancreatic cancer in the ATBC study than in most other study populations.

The authors of the study compared the levels of antibodies to H. pylori from blood samples taken at the start of the study (before cancer was diagnosed). They compared a group of 121 men who developed pancreatic cancer to a subgroup of 226 men who did not develop cancer but were similar in age and other characteristics.

They found that those infected with certain strains of H. pylori (CagA+) had a two-fold increase in risk of developing pancreatic cancer over the men in the study who were not infected with the bacteria. This study follows another, much smaller study, published in 1998, that also showed a link.

Much more research is necessary to fully evaluate the relationship between H. pylori and pancreatic cancer, particularly since all of those in this study were known to participate in the greatest risk factor – smoking. However, as a result of these studies, researchers are beginning to investigate further how gastric hormones or other factors influenced by H. pylori may affect pancreatic cells. We will be sure to alert you to any future discoveries.

Actions to take:

According to the American Cancer Society, common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include weight loss; abdominal or back pain; loss of appetite; jaundice; digestive problems; stool that is pale, bulky or greasy, blood clots; and diabetes. Should you find you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms, please consult your doctor immediately.

While there still is no instrument for early detection of pancreatic cancer, we now have some promising research on prevention. Quitting smoking is the most helpful thing you can do, along with controlling your weight and exercising.

We will continue to watch the research on this aggressive cancer and alert you about any further preventive measures or possible alternative treatments.