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Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst prognoses among the different types of cancer: the five-year survival rate of people diagnosed with this type of cancer is 37% if the cancer is localised, 12% if it has spread in the region and 3% if the cancer cells have travelled some distance from the pancreas.

Given these data, it is imperative that we do everything within our power to try and prevent pancreatic cancer. Of course, some of the risk factors for pancreatic cancer—like age, family history and some genetic syndromes—are not things we can influence. But there are some things that we can try to reduce our risk. Read on to know more about ways to reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer:

1. Lose weight to reduce pancreatic cancer risk

Obesity is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Studies have shown that obesity, defined as a body-mass index or BMI of more than 29.9, increases the risk of pancreatic cancer by 50-60% in some patients. Studies have also pointed out that compared with obese people who consume fewer calories, those with high calorific intake per day have a still higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

(BMI is your weight in kilos divided by the square meter of your height. So if you are 6 feet tall, then you would likely become obese starting at 101 kilograms of weight.)

Recent studies have shown that bariatric surgery can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, especially among diabetics. Researchers say this may be because:

  • Bariatric surgery is said to reduce inflammation by stopping the release of more inflammatory cytokines in the body. A sharp decline in inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) has been noted in obese diabetic patients who underwent this surgery.
  • Bariatric surgery has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.
  • The surgery combined with improved eating habits can help to reduce normalize fasting plasma glucose within one week in some patients.
  • It improves intestinal microbiota, which in turn improves the metabolism and how the body stores fat.

While the surgery can help in achieving drastic weight loss in people who normally find it harder than others to shed the kilos, it is important to follow the surgery up with exercises after bariatric surgery and long-term lifestyle changes (even for those who don’t have the surgery, the lifestyle changes can be hugely beneficial).

To be sure, obesity is a complex condition that involves multiple systems of the body. Often, losing weight isn’t just about eating less and exercising more—we know that obesity affects insulin sensitivity and the metabolism in several ways, it also increases the risk of chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, hyperlipidemia and heart disease, and that all of these, in turn, can make it harder to shed the kilos.

Having said that, it might be a good idea to make some lifestyle changes little by little to improve your overall health and decrease the risk of pancreatic cancer. There are two things you can start doing from today if you are overweight or obese:

  • Cut 300-500 calories from your diet, and stick to this new calorie count. Consult a dietitian to help you cut back more calories. Here are some things you can eliminate from your diet altogether: biscuits, bread, breakfast cereals, sugar and sugary drinks, namkeens, and any other packaged foods. Processed foods and ultra-processed foods contain ingredients like HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) which has very poor nutritional but very high calorific value and high quantities of salt.
  • Establish a workout routine you can enjoy: try brisk morning walks for 150 minutes a week, or if you can take on more vigorous physical activity, 75 minutes a week will do.

2. Stop smoking to reduce pancreatic cancer risk

Smoking and using smokeless tobacco (read Gutkha and other chewing tobacco products) are considered to be a contributing factor in roughly one in four cases of pancreatic cancer. Further, smokers are 50% more likely to develop this cancer than non-smokers. Quitting smokes has many benefits, including reducing the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Here are a few tips on how to quit smoking:

  • Try distracting yourself by calling a friend or by doing something you find engrossing whenever the urge to smoke arises—the urge will pass more often than you probably realise right now.
  • You can also use nicotine replacement therapy—check with your doctor for the right dosages for you.

3. Control your diabetes to reduce pancreatic cancer risk

Though researchers don’t exactly know why, but diabetes increases the risk of pancreatic cancer by 80% compared with people who have normal blood sugar levels. Strangely, researchers have found that a long history of diabetes—five years or more—halved the risk of pancreatic cancer, compared with a newer diagnosis of diabetes.

Controlling your blood sugar through lifestyle changes, and when necessary, medications like metformin and insulin injections can reduce some of the health problems associated with diabetes. The use of metformin by diabetes patients who also have pancreatic cancer has been shown to improve the chances of survival, according to research.

4. Reduce alcohol consumption to decrease the risk of pancreatic cancer

Heavy alcohol use puts a strain on many internal organs including the liver. It is also a known risk factor for many types of cancer. Because alcohol overuse increases the chances of chronic pancreatitis, it is also a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.

5. Fight infections to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer

Infections like ulcer-causing Helicobacter pylori infection and hepatitis B infection can increase the risk for pancreatic cancer. Following all the precautions to prevent these infections can also, in the long run, prevent certain types of cancer that are triggered by infections. Some tips to avoid these infections are:

To prevent H.pylori infection:

  • Cook food well before eating it
  • Eat or drink at only those places where you know that the food has been prepared hygienically
  • Wash your hands before every meal, after going to the washroom, after playing with pets, etc. (read more: What is the right way to wash my hands?)
  • Keep your surroundings clean

To prevent hepatitis B infection:

  • Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds
  • Practise safe sex
  • Avoid contact with the blood, blood products and bodily fluids of others
  • If you are getting a tattoo or a piercing, make sure the needle(s) being used are new and sterile

References

  1. American Cancer Society [Internet]. Survival rates for pancreatic cancer.
  2. Huxley R., Ansary-Moghaddam A., Berrington de González A. et al. Type-II diabetes and pancreatic cancer: a meta-analysis of 36 studies. British Journal of Cancer 92, 2076–2083 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bjc.6602619
  3. Gong J., Robbins L.A., Lugea A., Waldron R.T., Jeon C.Y. and Pandol S.J. Diabetes, pancreatic cancer, and metformin therapy. Frontiers in Physiology, 7 November 2014, https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2014.00426
  4. Xu M., Jung X., Hines O.J., Eibl G., Chen Y. Obesity and pancreatic cancer: overview of epidemiology and potential prevention by weight loss. Pancreas. 2018 Feb;47(2):158-162. doi: 10.1097/MPA.0000000000000974. PMID: 29346216.
  5. Bracci P.M. Obesity and pancreatic cancer: overview of epidemiologic evidence and biologic mechanisms. Molecular Carcinogenesis, January 2012; 51(1): 53-63. doi: 10.1002/mc.20778. PMID: 22162231.
  6. Talamini, G., Bassi, C., Falconi, M. et al. Alcohol and smoking as risk factors in chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, July 1999; 44: 1303–1311.
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