Diabetes and Cancer: Risks, Challenges, and Treatment
Time to read 8 min
Time to read 8 min
Diabetes and cancer have a lot of common risk factors, challenges, and prevention strategies. That means with a few simple steps, you can improve your diabetes while reducing your risk of cancer.
In this article, we’ll break down the complex relationship between diabetes and cancer, including risk factors, how to mitigate the risk, and the treatment options available.
Cancer is a disease that develops when normal body cells start behaving differently or dividing at an abnormal rate.
Each of the newly formed cells continues dividing, and together, they develop a tumor. However, having tumor cells doesn’t mean you have cancer. The tumor is only cancerous if it spreads to other organs in your body.
As long as the tumor cells remain in one organ, it’s considered a benign tumor, which isn’t cancerous.
Once it starts spreading, the tumor is considered malignant . Malignant tumor cells are dangerous because if these cancer cells keep spreading, they can cause many different types of cancer.
The French surgeon Theodore Tuffier proposed one of the first theories explaining how diabetes could result in cancer. During his studies, he found that insulin resistance , which is a common symptom of type 2 diabetes, often causes obesity or excessive weight.
The excessive weight keeps the body in a state of chronic inflammation, which can damage different organs and cells. Sometimes, when the DNA of these cells is damaged, certain mutations can occur, and that’s when cancer develops.
Chronic inflammation also causes the body to produce certain inflammatory chemicals, which have been linked to liver, skin, colon, and breast cancer.
Another theory states that obesity linked to type 2 diabetes causes your body to over-produce a hormone called leptin .
Normally, leptin is produced from fat cells, and its job is to give a sense of satiety. However, if a person is obese, they have too many fat cells producing too much leptin.
The excess leptin activates certain pro-cancer chemicals, which have been linked to different types of cancer, including colon and ovarian cancer.
The Warburg Effect suggests that hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) can lead to cancer. This is because cancerous cells need two main things to grow and spread: oxygen and glucose.
Therefore, people with diabetes and uncontrolled blood sugar levels are more likely to develop cancer because of the excess glucose in their blood.
When a person has type 2 diabetes, their body can sometimes become resistant to insulin. Insulin resistance signals the pancreas to produce more insulin to compensate.
Unfortunately, high insulin levels have been linked to greater ovarian, pancreatic, and breast cancer risk.
Most theories connecting diabetes and cancer revolve around type 2 diabetes, uncontrolled blood sugar, and obesity. That’s why two of the most effective means of cancer prevention are weight loss and glycemic control.
While it’s true that diabetes mellitus increases the risk of cancer in general, the risks are not the same for all types of cancer.
For example, people with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to develop liver or pancreatic cancer. They also have a much higher risk for colon, breast, and bladder cancer.
Breast cancer patients who have diabetes have a much higher mortality rate than those with breast cancer alone.
On the flip side, men with diabetes have a lower risk of developing prostate cancer.
Studies have shown that biological females with diabetes generally have a 6% higher risk of developing cancer than men do.
Biological females with diabetes also have a 27% higher possibility of developing cancer compared to non-diabetic females.
When comparing the likelihood of developing certain types of cancers, here were the key findings:
Females have an 11% higher chance of developing kidney cancer
Females have a 13% and 14% higher chance of developing oral and stomach cancer, respectively.
Biological males have a 12% higher chance of developing liver cancer.
This highlights how important it is for females with diabetes to get screened for different types of cancer and not just breast cancer.
Diabetes has one of the highest prevalences in the world , with over half a billion diabetic patients worldwide and about 37 million in the US.
Cancer is also extremely common, with just under 2 million new cancer cases recorded for 2023 in the United States alone.
Diabetes UK estimates that about 20% of cancer patients have diabetes , which shows how closely linked these two conditions are.
Another study by the National Cancer Institute shows that 1 in 100 people with new-onset diabetes develop pancreatic cancer within just three years of their diabetes diagnosis.
The study further explains that about 25% of all pancreatic cancer patients initially had diabetes.
If you’re pre-diabetic, you should pay special attention to diabetes risk factors to reduce your chances of developing diabetes and cancer.
However, both conditions share a few common risk factors, which makes it easier to keep an eye out for both.
Age: The risk of diabetes and cancer increases with age, so as you get older, you should perform checkups and cancer screening tests more regularly.
Gender: Biological males generally have a higher risk of developing cancer and diabetes than females do.
Race/Ethnicity: African Americans and non-Hispanic whites have an increased risk of developing cancer. On the other hand, Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Excessive Weight: Being obese or having excessive weight is arguably the most significant risk factor for diabetes and cancer.
Sedentary Lifestyle: Inactivity, or a sedentary lifestyle, increases your chances of developing insulin resistance, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
Smoking: Smoking is one of the leading causes of cancer, especially lung cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes.
Alcohol: Drinking alcohol increases your chances of developing certain types of cancer, such as liver cancer, especially in females. It also affects how your body makes insulin, which leads to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Family History: Having a family history of diabetes or cancer can increase your chances of developing either or both diseases.
Some cancer treatments can affect your blood sugar levels or interact with your diabetes medication. Make sure to talk to your diabetes care specialist about building your diabetes medication plan around your cancer treatment plan.
For example, some types of chemotherapy include steroids, which are known to increase blood sugar. Your doctor might prescribe an extra dose of insulin or other diabetes drugs before your chemotherapy session to keep your blood sugar in check.
Chemotherapy drugs can also make you lose your appetite. You’ll need to make an effort to eat as regularly as possible so your blood sugar doesn’t drop too low, especially when you take your diabetes medication.
It’s also a good idea to have your doctor prescribe anti-sickness medication. Chemotherapy often causes nausea and vomiting, which makes it harder to eat or drink.
There are many dietary and lifestyle modifications you can try to reduce your risk of developing cancer.
These strategies can also reduce your risk of developing diabetes and give you better control over your blood sugar level.
If you’re obese or overweight, healthy weight loss can help you control your diabetes while preventing cancer. Losing just 5-10% of your body weight is more than enough for significant improvements.
For example, if you weigh 300 pounds, start with a weight loss goal of 15 to 30 pounds.
You can use a BMI (body mass index) calculator to keep track of your progress as you slowly lose weight.
There are several ways you can lose weight, but most healthcare providers recommend a combination of exercise, meal planning, and lifestyle modifications.
You can also speak to your doctor about taking special medications, such as Ozempic or Wegovy , to help you on your weight loss journey. These weight-loss drugs can keep your blood sugar as close as possible to the ideal blood glucose levels for weight loss .
A healthy diet with just the right number of calories can help reduce your risk of cancer and promote healthy weight loss.
Ask your healthcare provider to create a meal plan or a diet for insulin resistance that improves your diabetes.
Here are a few general tips to keep in mind:
Less Red Meat: Eat less red and processed meats because they are full of saturated fats. Plus, they can increase your risk of colon and prostate cancer.
More Plant-based Food: Stick to a plant-rich diet full of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Less Sugar: Avoid sugary drinks and processed foods with added sugar. They can negatively affect your blood sugar levels and increase your chances of developing cancer.
More Fiber: Increase your fiber intake, especially whole grains, which improves your blood sugar levels and lowers the risk of colon cancer. Ideally, aim for at least 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories.
Cancer-fighting Foods: Eat more berries (blueberries, cranberries, and raspberries), broccoli, carrots, squash, spinach, kale, and green tea (matcha). They are full of cancer-fighting antioxidants as well as fibers.
Less Fat: Limit your daily fat intake. Stick to sources of healthy fats such as nuts, olive oil, oily fish, and avocados.
More Vitamin D: Eat vitamin D-rich foods such as mushrooms, egg yolks, and oily fish. These can lower your risk of prostate and colon cancer. You can also take vitamin D supplements.
Some studies show that drinking even a small amount of alcohol can increase your chances of developing cancer , especially if you have diabetes.
Getting regular exercise can help you prevent cancer and manage your diabetes. Ideally, you should aim for about 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity every week.
You can split it into as many workout sessions as you’d like as long as you hit your weekly target. Some of the best exercises for people with diabetes include brisk walking, dancing, swimming, and resistance training.
According to the American Cancer Society , smoking causes about 20% of all cancers, including mouth, larynx, kidney, liver, and more. It also causes about 80% of lung cancers.
Oncologists have recently considered using metformin , the diabetes medication, to reduce the risk of cancer.
Since metformin reduces your blood sugar levels, it can theoretically “starve cancer cells” because it deprives them of the much-needed glucose.
While initial studies have shown positive results, it’s still too early to call metformin an anti-cancer drug.
However, if you’re worried about your risk of a specific type of cancer, you can talk to your healthcare provider about adding metformin to your diabetes medication plan.
Diabetes and cancer might be closely linked, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone.
If you watch your blood sugar levels and follow these risk-reducing strategies, you can delay or even prevent cancer altogether.
To keep your diabetes controlled without the use of needles for insulin therapy, you should check out the new InsuJet V5 Injector . It can help you with painless insulin delivery for better adherence to your diabetes care regimen.
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