Pancreatic cancer is the fifth leading cause of death in Canada and the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Prevention is important because pancreatic cancer can rapidly progress to a terminal illness. People with cancer of the pancreas usually have no symptoms until the tumours have advanced to the point where they invade nearby organs, giving this form of cancer the nomenclature, the silent killer. At this stage of the disease, patients could experience abdominal/back pain, yellowing of the skin, weakness, loss of appetite, digestive problems including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and flatulence, sudden onset of diabetes or glucose intolerance, and unintentional weight loss.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the five-year relative survival rate for people aged 15 to 99 who were diagnosed with cancer in Canada between 2002-2004 (the most recent years for which data is available) for all cancers combined, was 62%. This means that those diagnosed with cancer between the years specified were 62% as likely to live for another five years, as were comparable members of the general population.

In Canada, the relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer, at only 6%, is devastatingly low, especially when compared to the survival rates for these other cancers: prostate (99%), breast (86%), bladder (77%), and even esophageal cancer (13%).


Smoking and Diet Affect Risk

A study published in the medical journal, Cancer Detection and Prevention, showed that the incidence of pancreatic cancer worldwide appears to correlate with increasing age and it is slightly more common in men and those of Jewish ancestry, and is more frequently occurring in blacks than in whites. Cigarette smoking, however, has the strongest positive association with risk of pancreatic cancer. This study also showed the following dietary factors linked to pancreatic cancer:

  • Increased Risk: Consumption of fat and oil, meat, dairy products, fried foods, carbohydrates, cholesterol, and salt, and also with a high calorie intake, even when the diet does not include the high-risk foods listed.
  • Decreased Risk: Consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, fibre, natural foods, and Vitamin C.


Chicken versus Red Meat

Swedish researchers have found that eating red meat three or more times a week may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In a prospective study, recently published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers examined data systematically collected regarding 61,433 Swedish women’s dietary habits, making special note of their long-term consumption of red meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Researchers also looked at their documented incidence of pancreatic cancer.

Over the course of the eighteen-year study, 172 women developed pancreatic cancer. Long-term consumption of three or more servings per week of red meat was associated with a 2.6 fold increase in pancreatic cancer incidence compared with consumption of fewer than two servings per week. Conversely, women who ate poultry had a 64% lower risk of pancreatic cancer than women who never ate poultry. Interestingly, there were no significant links between pancreatic cancer and the consumption of processed meat, fish, or eggs.

Since this is the first study to show the decreased risk associated with poultry consumption, the researchers caution that their results could be attributable to chance. Additionally, the authors note that cooking of red meat in Sweden is often by high-temperature methods whereas poultry and fish are typically prepared by stewing and baking. High temperature frying, barbecuing, and grilling meat produces heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, compounds that could pose cancer risks.


Early Detection and Reducing Risk

Be sure to report any changes in your body functions, such as those noted above, to your doctor as soon as you notice them. It may be wise to consider the recent research discussed above, which may reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Making specific lifestyle and dietary changes now could circumvent this swiftly advancing, silent killer.

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 157 – September/October 2006