Diabetes as a risk factor

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What is diabetes? Why is this relevant to pancreatic cancer?
What are the signs and symptoms of diabetes? Obesity and Type 2 diabetes
Different types of diabetes What can I do?

What is diabetes?


Diabetes is when the body is not regulating its blood sugar levels properly. When we eat fat and carbohydrates this is converted into glucose (sugar). Blood sugar levels are regulated by insulin, a hormone, which is a chemical messenger, found in the pancreasInsulin converts the glucose into energy, if your body cannot make enough insulin, or use its own effectively this is when you have diabetes.

What are the signs and symptoms of diabetes?

The main signs and symptoms, which are common to both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes, are:

  • Urinating more often than usual, particularly at night
  • Feeling very thirsty
  • Feeling very tired
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Itching around the penis or vagina, or frequent episodes of thrush
  • Cuts or wounds that heal slowly
  • Blurred vision – caused by the lens of the eye becoming dry

For more information from the NHS website, click on the following links: type 1 diabetes symptoms and type 2 diabetes symptoms.

Different types of diabetes

There are many different types of diabetes. Type 1 and 2 are the most common. 

                                                                            Type 1 diabetes
Also called insulin dependent diabetes, this often starts in childhood. This is when your body’s cells are attacking the pancreas stopping it from producing insulin. This is often caused by a genetic predisposition.
                                                                           Type 2 diabetes
This is the most common type of diabetes. This often occurs in adults (late onset) but now as more children are obese they have an increased risk of having type 2 diabetes (see obesity and diabetes below for more information). This is when your pancreas does produce some insulin, but not enough for your body’s needs, or is not responding well to the insulin (this is called insulin resistance).
                                                                           Type 3c diabetes
Type 3c diabetes is also when you are not producing enough insulin. This occurs due to a wide range of factors. For example, part of the pancreas is resected due to cancer or cystic lesions or other diseases of the pancreas such as chronic pancreatitis and also cystic fibrosis.

This condition is not well known about, even by medical professionals, it often gets diagnosed as Type 2. Type 3c can often have complications and more co-morbidities (one or more disease or disorder) such as bad digestion and naturally occurring malnutrition, worse glycemic control (the normal level your glucose levels should be) and a markedly greater requirement for insulin.

Click here to read Ali Stunt’s (Founder of Pancreatic Cancer Action) blog on her experience of having Type 3c diabetes.

                                                                       Gestational diabetes
This often occurs during middle or late pregnancy and often disappears after giving birth. This is when your body is not producing enough insulin to meet the needs of your pregnancy.

Type 1, 2 and 3c, diabetes are classified as hyperglycemia, when your blood sugar levels are too high. However, it is type 2 that has been linked with pancreatic cancer.

Why is this relevant to pancreatic cancer?

Diabetes is listed as a risk factor and a potential result of pancreatic cancer. Individuals with diabetes have a higher chance of developing pancreatic cancer.

Diabetes which is new, and not associated with weight gain can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. Click here to see other symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

GPs have been informed by the NICE guidelines 2015, which provides guidance and advice for the NHS, to look for new-onset diabetes with an unexplained weight loss to consider pancreatic cancer as this may be a population in whom pancreatic cancer can be detected early.

Why pancreatic cancer causes diabetes and how diabetes influences the outcome of pancreatic cancer are still not known. More research is being done to try and understand more about the connection and mechanisms shared by diabetes and pancreatic cancer. Many pancreatic cancer patients can present with new-onset Type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance when they are first diagnosed.

Individuals diagnosed with diabetes within 4 years before their pancreatic cancer diagnosis had a 50% greater risk of pancreatic cancer than did those diagnosed with diabetes more than 5 years before their cancer diagnosis.

Obesity and Type 2 diabetes

Obesity is thought to be one of the main causes for developing type 2 diabetes. See the NHS website for more information on risk factors for diabetes.

Obesity is also a risk factor for having pancreatic cancer (click here for more information). It should be noted that obesity and type 2 diabetes are linked.

It is important to note that Type 1 diabetes is not caused by obesity. However, controlling your weight may be a good way to decrease your chance from getting type 2 diabetes.

What can I do?

If you have diabetes caused by pancreatic cancer, it is difficult to control this with lifestyle choices. However, this can be controlled by taking Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) and by watching what you eat. For more information on this please see our Diet and Nutrition booklet. What can also be helpful is to monitor your blood sugar levels yourself, one way is though using an app – click here for more information.

Type 2 diabetes is a changeable risk of pancreatic cancer. Reducing your body weight can help improve your body’s ability to use insulin effectively. This can help reduce your chance of having pancreatic cancer as well as type 2 diabetes, strokes and coronary heart disease.

Follow the links for advice on how to lose weight and keep weight off.

See other risk factors

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Information Product No. | Published: 21/03/2018 | Last Updated: 05/03/2019 | Next Review Due: 21/03/2021