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The Link Between Diabetes and Pancreatic Cancer

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What do diabetes and pancreatic cancer have in common? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Those who live with diabetes know to be on the lookout for heart and kidney disease, eye problems, nerve damage, and other familiar side effects. But diabetes and pancreatic cancer are both diseases of the pancreas, and this connection is proving to be important.

While most people with diabetes do not develop pancreatic cancer, nearly one in four people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer already has diabetes as an underlying condition. Consequently, it is important to know the facts.

Pancreatic Cancer By the Numbers
Approximately 64,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. The survival rate is about 12 percent, making it one of the deadliest cancers of our time. The pancreas is deep in the abdomen, so tumors cannot be felt on examination. Symptoms like back pain, abdominal pain, and digestive difficulties are vague and common with many other less-lethal conditions. For these reasons, pancreatic cancer is most often diagnosed at an advanced stage.

If you’re someone who has diabetes or prediabetes, learning the facts about pancreatic cancer and discussing concerns with your doctor are two important steps.

Diabetes: A Risk Factor
For people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreatic cancer risk is only slightly higher than for people without diabetes. But for those with type 2 diabetes, the story is different. Nearly one in four people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer has type 2 diabetes. In fact, individuals with type 2 diabetes have double the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Hispanic and Black Americans have a higher risk of diabetes and should be especially aware of the link between the two diseases.

Diabetes can be a progressive disease. But if you have sudden challenges managing type 2 diabetes, such as unexplained above-target A1C and blood glucose levels or sudden weight loss, your doctor should investigate further beyond changing your medication.

Joel Evans was living with type 2 diabetes and was staying on top of quarterly blood tests with his endocrinologist. When Joel’s blood test showed a high bilirubin score in January 2015, his doctor ordered a CT scan. Those results led to more testing and a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Like many, Joel did not have any symptoms of pancreatic cancer beyond a change in his diabetes. Fortunately, he was diagnosed before the cancer had time to spread. After successful treatment and surgery, he developed type 3c diabetes and had to shift his management. But thanks to his doctor, Joel is still with us today to share his story.

New-Onset Diabetes: A Risk Factor and a Symptom
As researchers have delved deeper into the link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer, it has become clear that new-onset diabetes, especially after age 50, is often a symptom of pancreatic cancer. This is particularly true when the diabetes is associated with an unexplained weight loss.

How does this happen? The experts believe that a tumor in the pancreas leads to an ineffective production of insulin and insulin resistance, which results in diabetes.

Is the Link Between Diabetes and Pancreatic Cancer Cause For Alarm?
No, it is not. Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare and much less common than diabetes. But, people with diabetes still need to be aware of the relationship between these two diseases.

What Can You Do About It?
If you are living with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, you can pay attention to your body and follow these recommendations:

  • Visit the Let’s Win Pancreatic Cancer platform and take their Diabetes and Pancreatic Cancer Risk Awareness Quiz. Let’s Win breaks down barriers between patients, doctors, and researchers to provide vital information, educational resources, and hope to pancreatic cancer patients and caregivers. All information on the easy-to-use online platform is free and is available in English and Spanish.
  • Those with new-onset diabetes should consider their diagnosis as a red flag when navigating treatment with their caregivers.About 16 percent of people with new-onset diabetes over the age of 50 develop pancreatic cancer. Bring this concern to your doctors so you can stay on top of your treatment and any suspicious symptoms that may appear as the years go on.
  • Make your doctor aware of what you have learned about the relationship between diabetes and pancreatic cancer.
  • Watch for the following symptoms:
    • Back and abdominal pain and gastrointestinal (GI) problems are the most conspicuous symptoms that should be monitored, but they are often mistaken for other conditions.
    • The chronic occurrence of symptoms such as indigestion, reflux, bloating, nausea, discolored stools, and loss of appetite can be indicators.
    • Unintended weight loss should be investigated by a doctor.
    • These same symptoms can also lead to fatigue, exhaustion, and depression, which can be nondescript indications of pancreatic cancer.
  • Continue to educate yourself on diabetes and pancreatic cancer. There is a wealth of information on the links between diabetes and pancreatic cancer on the Let’s Win platform, and our experts in the field are always posting new articles on research and treatments.

More than anything else, it is important for patients and their doctors to advocate for themselves when something doesn’t seem right. Early detection can lead to more treatment options and a better outcome.

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