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Controlling Diabetes and Reducing Cancer Risk Go Hand in Hand

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Medical experts have been trying to discover links between diabetes and cancer for decades. Some research suggests that the diseases may share underlying causes, or that one disease may influence or cause the other.

Direct connections between cancer and diabetes are still not clear. But medical experts say there are many ways that people with diabetes, or at risk of developing diabetes, can still reduce their cancer risk.

Research has shown that diabetes has links to other diseases. Diabetes doubles the risk of liver, pancreatic, and endometrial cancer. It increases the risk of colorectal, breast, and bladder cancer by 20% to 50%. Also, diabetes symptoms may increase the risk for other diseases. For example, hyperglycemia – a condition caused by high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood – can damage nerves and blood vessels that control the cardiovascular system, raising the risk for heart disease.

Recent studies on the effects of hyperglycemia suggest that there may be a causal link between diabetes and cancer. Medical experts now have some evidence that hyperglycemia may damage DNA or prevent DNA from repairing itself correctly. DNA provides genetic instructions for cells to make molecules called proteins, which perform many functions to keep systems, tissues, and organs healthy and in working order. If a person has an error in a DNA repair gene, mistakes go uncorrected. Those mistakes become mutations, which eventually may lead to cancer.

Knowing the Risks

According to the America Diabetes Association, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers share the following risk factors:

  • Age: As you get older, your chances of developing cancer or type 2 diabetes increase.
  • Gender: Overall, cancer occurs more often in men. Men also have a slightly higher risk of diabetes than women do.
  • Race/ethnicity: African Americans and non-Hispanic whites are more likely to develop cancer. African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Inactivity: Exercise helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
  • Smoking: Smoking is linked to some cancers, and studies suggest it’s also a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
  • Alcohol: Women who have more than one drink per day and men who have more than two drinks per day increase their risk for both diabetes and cancer.
  • Weight: Obesity may increase the risk for developing type 2 diabetes as well as 13 different cancers, including stomach, uterine, colorectal, and kidney cancer.

Reducing Both Risks

Imagine a 10-vehicle accident on the interstate. Emergency workers who arrive at the scene may not discover exactly what caused the accident or why so many vehicles were involved. But they can still say that it is possible to help prevent this type of accident by reducing risk factors. If a main risk factor is tailgating, then drivers who avoid tailgating will be less likely to get involved in future pileups.

In a similar way, even though medical professionals can’t yet define the precise link between diabetes and cancer, they know that people with diabetes can make lifestyle changes to reduce their cancer risk.

Barbara Roberts, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, supervises the Diabetes and Nutrition Education Services at The Kirklin Clinic of UAB Hospital. She says that at least one connection between diabetes and cancer is well understood: Anyone who is trying to reduce their risk for diabetes is also working toward reducing cancer risks.

“If you are taking measures to prevent, control, or reverse diabetes, then you are already reducing your cancer risks,” Roberts says. “Problems that we see from diabetes – such as high blood sugar levels, inflammation, or high insulin levels – can increase cancer risks. The good news is that we already know how to prevent and control these conditions. We can make informed, healthy choices about what goes into our bodies, and we can try to stay as active as possible. Healthy choices concerning diabetes and healthy choices concerning cancer risks go hand in hand.”

Healthy Lifestyles Help

Roberts says there are several ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle that reduces the risk for diabetes and cancer:

  • For people already diagnosed with diabetes, learning to correctly manage blood sugar can improve health outcomes. Learning to keep blood sugar under control and avoiding hyperglycemia may reduce the risk of damaging DNA.
  • People with or without diabetes also can lower their risk through a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, along with regular exercise. It’s a proven way to keep blood sugar and weight under control and maintain a strong cardiovascular system.
  • Obesity is a major risk factor for several types of cancer, so managing weight loss can reduce that risk.
  • Research shows that alcohol and tobacco consumption can raise the risk of cancer. Alcohol drinks that are high in empty calories can slow down or reverse progress made with a balanced diet and regular exercise.
  • People with diabetes are at increased risk for certain cancers. They should ask their doctor about specific cancer risks and what types of cancer screenings they should have.

UAB Diabetes and Nutrition Education Services has a team of registered dietitians and certified diabetes educators who can help you create a diabetes management plan. Click here to learn more, or call 205-801-8711.