Pancreatic Cancer - The Silent Disease

Pancreatic Cancer, The Silent Disease

The symptoms are subtle, so it’s rarely diagnosed in the early stages when treatment is most effective. This is how pancreatic cancer came to be known as the “silent disease.”

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 32,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, but fewer than 2,000 of those patients will survive more than five years. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer has the poorest likelihood of survival among all major cancers.

Last week, Northwestern University researcher Halcyon Skinner, Ph.D., told Reuters Health, “Because there is no effective screening for pancreatic cancer, identifying controllable risk factors for the disease is essential for developing strategies that can prevent cancer.”

The two most prominent controllable risk factors are obesity and cigarette smoking, both of which raise the risk of developing the cancer. As for prevention, Dr. Skinner recently led a study that shows how supplements of one vitamin may reduce pancreatic cancer risk by a surprisingly significant degree.

Sunshine Superman

Looking for dietary or environmental factors that might affect pancreatic cancer risk, Dr. Skinner and his team analyzed data from two long-term population studies that followed the medical conditions and dietary habits of more than 122,000 subjects. About 75,000 subjects were women, and most of the subjects were over the age of 40.

Three key results stood out:

  • Subjects who took supplements that supplied at least 400 IU of vitamin D per day (the recommended daily allowance) lowered their risk of pancreatic cancer by 43 percent
  • Those who took vitamin D supplements that supplied less than 150 IU of the vitamin per day lowered their risk by 22 percent
  • Those who took more than 400 IU per day did not lower their risk by any more than 43 percent

As I’ve noted in many e-Alerts, the best source of vitamin D is sunlight. When your skin is exposed to ultraviolet light, your body responds by manufacturing vitamin D. Unfortunately, the amount of sun needed to develop vitamin D is only available in most of the U.S. during the summer months.

Put a tomato in it

While you’re upping your vitamin D intake, there’s another dietary choice that may help lower pancreatic cancer risk.

Last year, Canadian researchers investigated a possible link between pancreatic cancer and dietary intake of carotenoids; organic plant pigments that have been shown to help control inflammation. Subjects included 462 patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 4,700 healthy people selected from eight Canadian provinces.

Researchers found that beta-carotene and total carotenoid intake was associated with a significantly reduced risk of pancreatic cancer among non-smoking subjects. But the most striking result concerned the carotenoid lycopene. Those who had the highest lycopene intake reduced their pancreatic cancer risk by more than 30 percent, compared to subjects with the lowest intake.

The richest dietary source of lycopene is tomatoes, and absorbency of this important antioxidant is increased when tomatoes are served warm with a source of fat, such as cheese or meat.

Studies have shown that lycopene may also offer protection against breast cancer, prostate cancer, and heart disease.

“Vitamin D Intake and the Risk of Pancreatic Cancer in Two Cohort Studies” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Vol. 15, No. 9, September 2006,
“Vitamin D Halves Pancreatic Cancer Risk” Reuters Health, 9/13/06,