The death of Steve Jobs from pancreatic cancer last week added yet another name to the list of celebrities who have died as a result of that type of cancer, a stellar group which includes Patrick Swayze, Michael Landon, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jack Benny. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and has the highest mortality rate of all cancers, killing 95 percent of its victims, according to the American Cancer Society.
"It's a dismal, deadly disease," surgical oncologist Dr. Robert Wascher tells Newsmax Health. "But like other forms of cancer, up to 65 percent can be prevented by relatively modest diet and lifestyle changes," says Wascher, author of "A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race."
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One simple preventative step to lower the risk of pancreatic cancer is to take the spice turmeric, which is a strong cancer fighter, says Wascher.
Steve Jobs lived for seven years after he announced he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. Most victims aren't nearly so fortunate as Steve Jobs was and often live less than a year after their diagnosis. But Steve Jobs had a rare type of pancreatic cancer called neuroendocrine. "Only 5 to 8 percent of pancreatic cancers are this type, and its biology is different from the more common garden variety called adenocarcinoma that most people get," says Wascher. "The form Jobs had is less aggressive and patients tend to live longer."
One reason for the poor survival statistics is that pancreatic cancer usually causes no symptoms until it is advanced and has metastasized to other organs. The fortunate few who survive, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are diagnosed early, when the disease is treatable by surgery — and usually as a result of a CT scan or MRI conducted for another reason.
Treatment options are few, says Wascher: "The only cure comes with very radical surgery. No one is cured by chemotherapy or radiation without surgery. If pancreatic tumors can't be removed surgically, they tend to be quite resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
"Conventional medical and surgical procedures obviously do not cure pancreatic cancer for the vast majority of patients," he says. "So, I think it's reasonable to be a little more open-minded about complementary and alternative therapies when you have tried conventional therapies and have no other options. Both laboratory and clinical studies suggest there are some nutritional therapies that might have an effect on pancreatic cancer."
Turmeric has a cancer-fighting component called curcumin. "Laboratory tests and some animal studies show it has potential activity against pancreatic cancer." But, he warns, "What works in a laboratory environment doesn't necessarily work in humans." Wascher himself takes 1,000 mg of turmeric twice a day. "I don't know for sure that it will help me, but I'm pretty sure it won't hurt." There is no established dosage, but most experts recommend taking between 500 mg and 2,000 mg daily.
A Phase II clinical trial at MD Anderson Center involved 25 patients with pancreatic cancer who were given 8 grams of turmeric a day for two months. Tumor growth stopped in two patients, one for eight months and another for two-and-a-half years. Another patient's tumor temporarily regressed by 73 percent. Since the only two drugs approved by the FDA are effective in no more than 10 percent of patients, turmeric's effectiveness was similar with no side effects.
In another study, turmeric reduced tumor growth in mice with pancreatic cancer by 43 percent. When combined with fish oil, tumor growth was reduced by 70 percent.
Since turmeric is poorly absorbed by the body, experts advise mixing it with olive oil or a combination of olive oil and black pepper to increase absorption.
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Metformin is a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes. University of Texas MD Anderson Center researchers found that diabetics who took metformin had a 60 percent lower risk of developing pancreatic cancer compared to diabetics who didn't use the drug. "In clinical studies, we've found that people who take metformin tend to survive longer," Wascher says. "Based on that data, I tend to put patients who have pancreatic cancer on metformin even if they have very mild diabetes. It's such a lethal disease that it's worth the hope of even a small benefit."
By far the best option is to avoid pancreatic cancer, and as in the prevention of other cancers, changes in diet and lifestyle offer you your best chances of living a long and healthy life. Steps to lower risk include:
Approximately 27 percent of pancreatic cancers are linked with smoking. One study in Los Angeles County found that smoking a pack or more of cigarettes a day was associated with a fivefold to sixfold increase in the risk. Research at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University found that a protein in the body which makes cancer cells more likely to spread is much higher in the pancreas of smokers who have pancreatic cancer.
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About 25 percent of pancreatic cancer is associated with obesity. Women who are severely obese have a 45 percent higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. And a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that adults who were overweight as teens had a 60 percent higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer as adults.
Eat fresh vegetables and whole grains.
A study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found that people who ate the most vegetables lowered their risk of pancreatic cancer by 55 percent when compared to those who ate the least. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people with the highest fiber intake lowered their risk of pancreatic cancer up to 48 percent when compared with those with the lowest fiber intake.
Keep sugar levels in check.
Studies have found that 1 percent of patients diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes after the age of 50 will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer within three years.
Avoid sugary drinks.
The Georgetown University Medical Center found that people who drank as few as two soft drinks a week doubled their risk of pancreatic cancer.
Shun processed meats and red meat.
Research from the Cancer Research Center at the University of Hawaii found that people who ate the highest amount of processed meats increased their risk of pancreatic cancer by 67 percent. Diets high in red meats upped cancer risk by about 50 percent.
"When it comes to cancer prevention," says Wascher, "the old adage about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure should probably be revised to 'An ounce of cancer prevention is worth a ton of cancer cure.'"
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