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Diabetes diagnosis late in life may signal pancreatic cancer

July 10, 2018—A diabetes diagnosis late in life may be an early sign of pancreatic cancer, a new study suggests.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly cancers, with a five-year survival rate of only 8 percent. That's because most people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at a late stage. This year an estimated 55,440 people in the U.S. will learn they have it.

The study's findings may help doctors better identify people at high risk for pancreatic cancer and save lives, the researchers said.

Diabetes triples risk

For the study, researchers tracked nearly 50,000 African Americans and Latinos. Both groups have a high diabetes risk.

They found that overall a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes after age 50 more than tripled the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Breaking down the data further, the study found that compared to those without diabetes:

  • Latinos age 65 to 85 diagnosed with diabetes were four times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer within three years of their diagnosis.
  • African Americans who developed diabetes were three times more likely to develop cancer within three years of their diagnosis.
  • This may mean that late-onset type 2 diabetes is a distinct form of the disease, the researchers said. This variant could be an early sign of pancreatic cancer.

Read the abstract to learn more. The full study appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Understand your risk

This study has a takeaway: If you develop type 2 diabetes in your later years, talk to your doctor about your risk for pancreatic cancer. These factors also raise risk:

  • Tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes may be to blame for up to 30 percent of all pancreatic cancers. Pipe and cigar smoking also raise risk. So does smokeless tobacco.
  • Extra pounds. Being overweight heightens risk. And carrying extra weight around your middle may raise your risk even if you're not very overweight.
  • Workplace exposure to certain chemicals. Heavy exposure to chemicals used in dry cleaning and metal-working may increase risk.
  • Advancing age. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 71.
  • Race. African Americans are slightly more likely to get pancreatic cancer than white people.
  • Family history. Pancreatic cancer seems to run in certain families—in some cases because of inherited gene mutations.
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