Pancreatic cancer: what do I eat for that?

no proven alternative therapies for pancreatic cancer

After the untimely passing of Steve Jobs from a rare form of pancreatic cancer, plenty of people might be wondering “what can I eat to prevent that?”  The possibility of preventing or curing cancer with nutrition is very attractive.  It’s also unproven, despite all the hype and testimonials you find on the internet.

The most we know about cancer and nutrition comes in generalities.  For example, you are at lower risk for many cancers, including pancreatic, if you eat a Mediterranean-style diet full of plant foods and healthy fats.  Diet-disease research clearly shows this relationship, although the reason for the effect isn’t entirely clear.  Nutrition and medical researchers speculate that it’s the fiber, the antioxidants, specific vitamins, certain fatty acids, or all of the above.  It could also be that a high-plant-food diet is by definition low in other foods that increase risk.  Or that people who eat a Mediterranean-style diet have other healthy habits that reduce cancer risk.  No one has nailed this down, despite what you read about “cancer-preventing” antioxidants or supplements or special diets.

The common form of pancreatic cancer is related to Type 2 diabetes and obesity.  But whether this relationship is somehow cause-and-effect, or a coincidence is unknown.  It’s possible that obese people with Type 2 diabetes have some other abnormalities that can also increase cancer risk, since these people are also at increased risk for breast and colon cancer.  The idea that increased blood glucose from the diabetes causes pancreatic  cancer has not been proven, although it’s a popular myth on the internet.  Vitamin D was thought to be protective, when disease data showed that sun exposure was associated with lower risk.  However, other research linked increased risk to high blood vitamin D.  While no cause-and-effect mechanism is known, it’s interesting that vitamin D is metabolized to active form in the pancreas.  It’s possible that the high levels are symptoms of dysfunction in that metabolic pathway, rather than causing cancer.  So far no research has been done that boosts blood vitamin D with supplements and then tracks development of cancer.  Who would do that study?

Steve Jobs reportedly tried alternative treatments initially for his rarer form of pancreatic cancer.  According to a very good review of this situation on The Daily Beast, most patients opt for surgery right away to remove the tumor cells.  Instead, Jobs is reported to have spent 9 months on some kind of special diet.  Since there are no proven diet cures, this delay might have given the tumor cells time to spread.

The more important role of nutrition in pancreatic cancer is in maintain health as much as possible during treatment.  Because surgery, treatments and cancer recurrence can be extremely debilitating to digestion and appetite, the best approach for patients is to consult a dietitian experienced in cancer nutrition immediately, before surgery and before treatments, to plan a course of action so that the nutritional part of your health doesn’t fall apart.

Until research discovers any specific nutritional ties to pancreatic cancer, the best advice for prevention is to maintain a normal body weight, which reduces risk for Type 2 diabetes, and focus on a Mediterranean-style, plant-based diet.  If you develop disease, keep in mind that no alternative therapies have been proven to cure it.  Think about it this way: if there were any such cures, don’t you think Steve Jobs and other high profile patients would have known about them?

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