Rising rates of obesity and diabetes could be pushing up rates of pancreatic cancer across the globe, a new report suggests.
Global rates of colon cancer are also on the rise, although fewer cases are now proving deadly, researchers said.
Colon cancer rates and pancreatic cancer deaths rose by 10% worldwide between 1990 and 2017, according to a new study of global trends in digestive diseases.
Data from 195 countries also showed that pancreatic cancer cases increased 130% over the period — from 195,000 cases in 1990 to 448,000 in 2017. While some of the increase can be explained by population growth and people living longer, even after the researchers factored in these population changes, pancreatic cancer cases still rose by 12% and death rates rose by 10%.
The findings were presented Tuesday at a meeting of United European Gastroenterology (UEG), in Barcelona, Spain. The study was published simultaneously in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology.
"Pancreatic cancer is one of the world's deadliest cancers, with an overall five-year survival rate of just 5%," said lead author Dr. Reza Malekzadeh, director of the Digestive Disease Institute at Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran. Higher-income countries had the highest incidence of pancreatic cancer and the highest death rates.
Especially in these more affluent countries, the rise in risk factors for pancreatic cancer, such as obesity and diabetes, could be driving the increase in cases, Malekzadeh said.
The good news: Those risk factors "are largely modifiable and present a huge opportunity for prevention," he said in a meeting news release.
Dr. Wasif Saif is medical director of the Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Lake Success, N.Y. Reading over the new findings, he said that one of the issues around pancreatic cancer is the lack of a good screening tool for early detection. Pancreatic cancer is often lethal because it is spotted too late.
But Saif also agreed that more must be done to help decrease common risk factors for cancers of the digestive tract, including pancreatic cancer.
In all countries, governments should devote resources to "education about modifying risk factors such as smoking, diet and lifestyle, in order to decrease the incidence and mortality associated with gastrointestinal tract tumors," Saif said.
There was good news and bad news when it came to colon cancer, the new report found. On a global level, the number of newly diagnosed cases of the disease rose by 9.5% between 1995 and 2017, Malekzadeh's group found. But death rates from the disease fell by 13.5% over the same time period.
That's probably because the increasing use of colonoscopy and other screening tools means that more cases are being identified. But on the other hand, many of these cases are being spotted earlier, when treatment success is more likely, the researchers said.
That's encouraging news, said one U.S. expert.
"The take-home message for the average person is get screened, as this is the best way to identify pre-malignant polyps or early cancers," said Dr. Elliot Newman. He's chief of surgical oncology, pancreas and hepatobiliary surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"Increased exercise, decreased smoking, weight control and high-fiber diet all seem to confer protection in colorectal cancer, especially in men," noted Newman, who wasn't involved in the new study.
There was also some good news when it came to stomach cancer. Malekzadeh and his colleagues reported that this cancer has now dropped from the world's second-leading cause of cancer death to the third — behind lung and colon cancer.