What You Need to Know about the Link Between Diabetes and Pancreatic Cancer

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By : Suvarna Sheth

Award-winning American game show host of “Jeopardy!” Alex Trebek announced his diagnosis with stage IV pancreatic cancer earlier this month.

Just like him, 56,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year.

Pancreatic cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. with a very low survival rate. The symptoms of this form of cancer are not obvious and there is no early detection method.

Like all cancers, the reason for pancreatic cancer is unknown, however, there are certain risk factors to be aware of, including diabetes.

We speak to an expert, Dr. Lynn Matrisian, chief science officer, of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an organization that funds research and provides support for those affected by pancreatic cancer to learn more about the condition, and how it is linked to diabetes.

1. What is the connection between pancreatic cancer and diabetes?

The connection between pancreatic cancer and diabetes is complex and still being studied. Longstanding diabetes can be considered a mild risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer.

In contrast, the sudden onset can also be considered a symptom of pancreatic cancer – nearly 1 percent of new diabetes diagnoses after the age of 50 can be attributed to a tumor on the pancreas.

2. Is having diabetes a risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer?

Yes, longstanding diabetes is considered a mild risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer. The increase is modest, though – thought to be 1.5- to twofold higher than the general population.

3. Can pancreatic cancer cause diabetes?

More research is needed to understand the cause-and-effect relationship, but yes, evidence suggests that a tumor on the pancreas can cause a type of diabetes sometimes known as Type 3c.

4. What kinds of symptoms might a person with diabetes caused by pancreatic cancer face?

Individuals with diabetes caused by pancreatic cancer often show increases in blood sugar along with weight loss.

5. Are there any indicators for pancreatic cancer?

Because of the knowledge that new-onset diabetes can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer, efforts are underway to determine how to best differentiate individuals whose diabetes is caused by an undiagnosed tumor. This provides an opportunity to develop an early detection strategy for the disease.

6. What symptoms might someone experience if they have pancreatic cancer?

Symptoms include pain (usually in the abdomen or back), weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or eyes) with or without itching, loss of appetite, nausea, change in stool and pancreatitis.

If someone is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, we urge them to speak to their doctor immediately and reference pancreatic cancer.

7. Is there anything someone with diabetes do, prevention-wise?

There are no studies available to tell us if longstanding diabetics who control their diabetes with diet, exercise, and/or medication are able to decrease their risk of pancreatic cancer.

Raising awareness that newly developed diabetes can be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer can result in earlier diagnosis, leading to improved treatment options and outcome.

You can learn more about the different types of diabetes here. Special thanks to Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D., MBA and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network for their insight.