Diabetes and Cancer Risk
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How Insulin Resistance Could Leave You Prone to Serious Complications

There’s still a lot of mystery surrounding diabetes and how it raises the risk of cancer, but evidence insists there is definitely a link. A series of recent panels have brought together experts in both fields to discuss and evaluate how the two conditions contribute to each other, and of course, what that means for treatment.

The fact is, diabetics are more likely to suffer from certain types of cancer, and diabetes can make it more likely for cancer to recur. On the other hand, some measures to prevent or diminish diabetes and its effects are also effective when it comes to cancer prevention. If you’re suffering from diabetes, or expect you may have it, it’s important to determine your cancer risk and how to reduce it right away.

The Link Between Diabetes and Cancer

Certain cancers are more prevalent in diabetics than others. Since diabetes is a metabolic disorder, it’s not too surprising that some of the most commonly diagnosed cancers are directly tied to metabolism and waste removal:

  • Diabetes doubles your risk of liver, pancreas and endometrial cancer
  • Diabetes raises your risk of breast and bladder cancer by 20 percent

However, the big question is whether the disease itself is responsible for the increased risk, or if certain risk factors that come with diabetes are to blame. After all, diabetics tend to also have poor diets, be overweight, inactive, and older in age — and all of these can raise overall cancer risk.

But just as diabetes can raise your risk of cancer, preventing or reversing the effects of diabetes can cut your cancer risk significantly. Lifestyle changes should be top priority for anyone at risk of, or already diagnosed with, diabetes: eat a wholesome plant-based diet, bring weight down to a healthy range, and make time for physical activity every day.

Who Is at the Greatest Risk?

Since insulin resistance seems to be a major factor in the diabetes-cancer connection, it follows that any level of insulin resistance could affect your cancer risk. In fact, prediabetes — a condition that precedes diabetes and is marked by too much insulin in the blood — might be enough to dramatically increase your chances of developing cancers like pancreatic and colorectal.

Although the precise relationship between diabetes, prediabetes and cancer is still a bit of a mystery, one thing is clear: a high percentage of body fat is a definite risk factor for all three conditions.

It’s no secret that being overweight or obese is bad for the body, but when insulin resistance enters into the picture, a high BMI is could set the stage for cancer in a couple of ways:

Hormonal Changes Spur Cancer Cells

Carrying too much body fat interrupts your natural hormonal processes. Since hormones control when cells multiply and how often, significant hormonal changes could lead cancer cells to build up to dangerous levels.

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Insulin Stimulates Cell Growth

Insulin also encourages cells to grow and multiply. Too much insulin in your body can motivate production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which also encourages cells to grow and accumulate; together, the excess insulin and IGF-1 can have a strong effect on the behavior of cancer cells.

How Diabetes Treatment Can Complicate Health

Long-term diabetes management usually involves a number of treatment approaches, and some of the most commonly used medications may be more risky than previously thought. Some studies have found that long-acting insulin could increase your cancer risk.

Experts suspect other drugs may also negatively impact your chances of developing certain cancers, but research in this area is only beginning and there are just as many unknowns as there are proven facts. Until more concrete evidence is uncovered, the medical consensus is not to sideline your diabetes management plan based on your fears of cancer.

One positive finding: Metformin, which is the most commonly prescribed drugs to control diabetes, might actually lower cancer risk. Of course, there are so many factors that add to your individual cancer risk, that focusing solely on one aspect of your treatment won’t be enough. Instead, you’ll need to accept the facts, address your lifestyle, and start making smart changes right away.

What You Can Do to Improve Your Prognosis

Despite the big gains in cancer research, cancer is still a sneaky, surprising and unpredictable disease. It’s impossible to know whether or not it will directly affect your life and when it will strike. However, you’re not completely helpless in the face of cancer — what you change now can make a big difference for your diabetes and cancer risk in the years to come.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Extra body fat is an undeniable factor in cancer, diabetes and insulin resistance — but you have the power to reduce that threat. Even a couple of small changes can make a huge difference in your long-term health and cancer risk: according to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse, losing between 5 and 10 percent of your starting weight can prevent diabetes and even reverse prediabetes.

Quit Smoking

You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth stating again: quitting smoking once and for all is the best thing you can do for your body and your cancer risk. Approach your quitting challenge with the planning and strategy it deserves. Plan a quit date, assemble a good support network, and lean on your doctor for information and support. You’re more powerful than you might imagine, especially when you make use of all the tools around you.

Get Screened

It’s not possible (or recommended) to get screened for every type of cancer, but certain screening procedures can be helpful when you have diabetes along with certain risk factors. Regular breast examinations and mammograms can catch breast cancer early, and colonoscopies and related procedures can find colon cancer before it has a chance to spread. Talk with your doctor about often you should get screened, and what exactly you should screen for based on your age, gender, health history and family history.

It’s important you don’t get ahead of yourself — diabetes doesn’t lead to cancer in every case. Rather than worry about possible outcomes, be cautious with your lifestyle choices and get proactive with your self-care. Taking steps to overhaul your lifestyle now may be difficult and uncomfortable, but those are hurdles you can overcome. A bit of patience and persistence can get you out of the danger zone and onto a path towards a much brighter future.