Different clinical and observational studies suggest that foods including whole grains, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and spinach; foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, Vitamin C, oleic acid, dietary fiber, magnesium and burdock extract may help fighting pancreatic cancer, alleviate its symptoms or support the treatment. Additionally, in vitro studies found that Polysaccharide-K (PSK), found in medicinal mushrooms including Turkey tail mushrooms, might have anti-cancer potential when used in pancreatic cancer cells treated with a specific chemotherapy. However, factors like obesity, a high intake of meat, heme iron and Vitamin D and use of smokeless tobacco may increase pancreatic cancer risk. Doing regular exercises, being physically active and taking the right foods and supplements as part of a healthy diet are essential for fighting pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic Cancer Incidence
Pancreatic cancer is the cancer that starts in the pancreas, a gland producing digestive juices and hormones. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women. It accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the United States. 1 in 64 people has a risk of getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during their lifetime. (American Cancer Society)
Pancreatic cancers are more common in those aged above 75 years, though people with any age can be diagnosed with this cancer. It is also common in those with medical conditions such as long-term chronic pancreatitis, a history of pancreatic cancer in the family or a family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk including BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
In the early stages, pancreatic cancer may not exhibit any symptoms, or may be difficult to spot. Some of the common signs and symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer are:
- Jaundice- the whites of eyes or skin turn yellow in colour
- Itchy skin
- Dark urine
- Pale stools
- Unintended weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Being newly diagnosed with diabetes
- Blood clots
- A high temperature, feeling hot or shivery
Consult your doctor if you notice any of these signs and symptoms related to pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic Cancer Treatment
The treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the extent of spread or stage of the cancer, the size and type of the cancer, the location of the cancer, general health and medical history of the patient.
Following are the most common types of treatments for pancreatic cancer.
- Targeted Therapy
- Supportive/Palliative Care
Surgery can remove all or some parts of the cancer affected pancreas. It may not be suitable if the cancer has spread or for advanced pancreatic cancer patients.
Chemotherapy can kill the cancer cells. Chemotherapy is used before surgery to reduce the size of the cancer. It is also used to improve the symptoms and control cancer when surgery is not an option or when surgery cannot completely remove the cancer. It may be used along with radiation treatment post surgery to help stop the recurrence of pancreatic cancer.
Radiation treatment may be provided before or after cancer surgery. It is also given in combination with chemotherapy.
Targeted treatments for pancreatic cancer may also help in controlling the cancer by aiming to kill the cancer cells with high selectivity.
Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life of the pancreatic cancer patient by relieving pain and other symptoms and side-effects of cancer and its treatments.
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Can Diet/Foods/Supplements and LifeStyle Factors impact Pancreatic Cancer?
When it comes to cancer such as pancreatic cancer, our lifestyle and diet plays an important role. Choosing the right foods and supplements and avoiding those which can elevate cancer risk and interfere with cancer treatments is crucial for pancreatic cancer care and prevention. Below are some examples of food and supplements associated with pancreatic cancer care and prevention.
Potential Foods and Supplements which may help in Fighting Pancreatic Cancer
Omega 3 Supplement Intake may help Reduce Weakness/Cachexia in Pancreatic Cancer Patients and Pancreatic Cancer Risk
In a study conducted by the researchers from the Jikei University School of Medicine, Tokyo in 27 pancreatic and bile duct cancer patients, they found that a nutrient formulated with omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fishes) improved the skeletal muscle mass in patients with pancreatic cancer which couldn’t be treated by surgery, indicating that omega-3 may be beneficial in improving cancer related weakness/fatigue and symptoms related to cachexia. (Kyohei Abe et al, Anticancer Res., 2018)
Another study which evaluated the dietary data from 82,024 eligible participants aged between 45 to 74 years without a history of cancer who were included in the Japan Public Health Center-based Prospective Study (JPHC study) found that a high n-3 PUFA (poly-unsaturated fatty acids) intake may be associated with a reduced risk of pancreatic cancer in a population with a large variation in fish consumption. (Akihisa Hidaka et al, Am J Clin Nutr., 2015)
Burdock Extract may be Beneficial for Pancreatic Cancer Patients treated with a specific Chemotherapy
A 2016 phase I clinical study done by the researchers from National Cancer Center Hospital East, Meiji Pharmaceutical University, National Cancer Center, Kracie Pharma, Ltd. in Toyama, and Tokyo University of Science, Japan evaluated the impact of an oral drug GBS‐01, an extract from the fruit of Burdock, rich in arctigenin, in 15 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer refractory to a specific chemotherapy (GEM) treatment. (Masafumi Ikeda et al, Cancer Sci., 2016)
The study found that a daily dose of 12 g of GBS‐01 (containing approximately 4.0 g burdock fruit extract rich in arctigenin) may be clinically safe and may be beneficial for patients with advanced pancreatic cancers refractory to GEM chemotherapy. The study highlighted that 4 patients had stable disease and 1 showed a partial response, with the response rate 6.7% and disease control rate 33.3%. The median progression‐free and overall survival were 1.1 months and 5.7 months, respectively. More studies are needed to confirm these benefits.
Curcumin may be Beneficial for Patients with advanced Pancreatic Cancer
In a phase II trial done by the researchers from the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, United States using a Curcumin (a key ingredient of Turmeric) oral formulation in 25 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, the researchers found that two of these patients exhibited a clinical biological activity. One of these patients had a stable disease for more than 18 months and other had a brief but significant tumor regression. (Dhillon N et al, Clin Cancer Res., 2008)
Hence, Curcumin may be included in the list of potential pancreatic cancer fighting foods/supplements.
Vitamin C supplementation may Reduce Inflammation in Pancreatic Cancer patients
Researchers from Riordan Clinic in Kansas, US evaluated the impact of using high dose intravenous Vitamin C post standard conventional treatments on inflammation in 45 cancer patients with different cancer types including breast, colon, lung, pancreatic, renal and prostate cancers. The study found that intravenous Vitamin C administration reduced the levels of inflammatory markers such as IL-1α, IL-2, IL-8, TNF-α, chemokine eotaxin and C-Reactive protein (CRP) in these patients. (Mikirova N et al, J Transl Med. 2012)
Hence, Vitamin C may also be included in the list of potential pancreatic cancer fighting foods/supplements.
Oleic Acid Intake may Reduce the Risk of Pancreatic Cancer
A population based study called EPIC-Norfolk involving 23,658 participants, aged 40-74 years, done by the researchers from the United Kingdom, evaluated the link between dietary oleic acid (a key ingredient of olive oil) intake and the risk of developing pancreatic cancers based on dietary information from food diaries. During a follow-up after 8.4 years, 88 participants including 55% women, were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer/ pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. (Paul Jr Banim et al, Pancreatology., 2018)
They found that those who consumed high amounts of oleic acid had a reduced risk of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma/cancer compared to those who consumed low amounts of oleic acid. The reduction was found to be more predominant in those with Body Mass Index (BMI)>25 kg/m2, but not in those with BMI<25 kg/m2.
The study suggests that oleic acid rich foods (such as olive oil) may have cancer fighting properties and have a protective role against pancreatic cancer, especially in those with higher BMIs.
High Dietary Fiber Intake may Reduce Pancreatic Cancer Risk
In a study published by the researchers from the Zhejiang University in China, they evaluated the association between dietary fiber intake and pancreatic cancer risk based on data obtained from 1 cohort and 13 case-control studies found through literature search in online databases till April 2015. The study found that high dietary fiber intake may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. (Qi-Qi Mao et al, Asia Pac J Clin Nutr., 2017)
The study suggests that foods rich in dietary fiber such as whole grains, legumes and nuts may have cancer fighting properties and a protective role against pancreatic cancer.
Whole Grain Intake may Reduce Pancreatic Cancer Risk
Another study done by the researchers from different Universities in China based on 8 studies obtained through literature search in online databases till July 2015 found that a high intake of whole grains may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. (Qiucheng Lei et al, Medicine (Baltimore)., 2016)
Cruciferous Vegetable Intake may Reduce Pancreatic Cancer Risk
A meta-analysis done by the researchers from China using data obtained through literature search in online databases till March 2014 found that a high cruciferous vegetable intake may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. (Li LY et al, World J Surg Oncol. 2015)
Decreased Magnesium Intake may Increase Pancreatic Cancer Risk
Analysis of data from a cohort of 66806 men and women aged between 50 to 76 years who participated in the VITamins And Lifestyle (VITAL) study found that every 100 mg per day decrement in magnesium intake was associated with a 24% increased risk of incidence of pancreatic cancer. Hence, taking Magnesium in the right quantities from food sources including green leafy vegetables such as spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and foods containing dietary fiber, fish, dairy products and lean meats may be beneficial for reducing the risk of pancreatic cancer. (Dibaba D et al, Br J Cancer, 2015)
Foods/Supplements/Diet that may Increase the Risk of Pancreatic Cancer
Meat and Heme Iron Intake may Increase the Risk
A study published in 2016 evaluated the association of red, white and processed meat intake, meat cooking methods and doneness and heme iron with pancreatic cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study cohort involving 322,846 participants of which 187,265 were men and 135,581 were women. During a mean follow-up of 9.2 years, 1,417 pancreatic cancer cases were diagnosed. The study found that red meat, high-temperature cooked meat, grilled/barbecued meat, well/very well done meat and heme iron from red meat were associated with a significant increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer. (Pulkit Taunk et al, Int J Cancer., 2016)
Another study conducted by the researchers from the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University, Georgetown University in Washington DC and University of Michigan School of Public Health, based on data from the Black Women’s Health Study (1995-2018) involving 52,706 participants and 148 reported pancreatic cases among African-American women who were 50 years or older, found that total red meat intake was associated with a 65% increased pancreatic cancer risk, primarily due to unprocessed red meat. (Jessica L Petrick et al, Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev., 2020)
High Vitamin D intake may Increase the Cancer Risk
A meta-analysis of 9 case-control studies from the International Pancreatic Cancer Case-Control Consortium (PanC4) including studies from North America, Italy, Australia and a multi-national study found an increased risk of pancreatic cancer with increased dietary vitamin D intake. This association was significant in people with low retinol/vitamin A intake. (M Waterhouse et al, Ann Oncol., 2015)
Impact of Life-Style Factors on Pancreatic Cancer Risk
Physical Activity/Exercise Reduce the Cancer Risk
A meta-analysis done by researchers of Shanghai, China assessed the impact of physical activity on different types of Digestive System Cancers including Pancreatic cancer based on 47 studies identified via literature search in online databases, involving 5,797,768 participants and 55,162 cases. (Fangfang Xie et al, J Sport Health Sci., 2020)
The study found that people with high physical activity had a 22% reduced risk of pancreatic cancer compared to those with very low physical activity. They also found that while moderate physical activity reduced the risk of Digestive System Cancers compared to low physical activity, high physical activity slightly increased the risk of developing these Cancers compared to moderate physical activity.
Obesity or Increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) may Increase the Cancer Risk
In a study done by the researchers from France and the United Kingdom involving 7110 pancreatic cancer patients and 7264 control subjects, they evaluated the role of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic factors in pancreatic cancer. The study found that the increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) and genetically increased fasting insulin significantly increased the risk of pancreatic cancer. (Robert Carreras-Torres et al, J Natl Cancer Inst., 2017)
Smokeless Tobacco Use may Increase the Cancer Risk
Researchers from India studied the association between smokeless tobacco and the risk of different cancer types based on data from 80 studies obtained through literature search in online databases till January 2018 and found that smokeless tobacco use increased the risk of pancreatic cancer especially in the European Region. (Sanjay Gupta et al, Indian J Med Res., 2018)
Impact of Turkey Tail Mushroom in Pancreatic Cancer
One of the recent trending online searches with regards to pancreatic cancer fighting foods is on Turkey Tail mushroom, a medicinal mushroom. Well, there aren’t any human studies available which evaluated the impact of taking Turkey tail mushroom on pancreatic cancer risk. However, there are some experimental studies that have assessed the effect of some of the key bioactive of Turkey Tail mushrooms on pancreatic cancer cells. Here is an example.
Polysaccharide-K (PSK) is a bio-active compound, extracted from Turkey Tail mushroom (Trametes versicolor) and other medicinal mushrooms, which has been studied for its effect on pancreatic cancer cells. In one experimental study, it was found that PSK (usually found in Turkey Tail mushroom) when used in combination with a specific chemotherapy (DOC) exhibited enhanced anti-cancer properties against human pancreatic cells. (Zhang H et al, Oncogene., 2003)
More studies are needed to evaluate the anti-cancer properties of Turkey Tail mushroom in pancreatic cancer.
A diet including foods such as whole grains, cruciferous vegetables, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, Vitamin C, oleic acid, dietary fiber, magnesium and burdock extract may be beneficial in fighting pancreatic cancer, reducing the symptoms and supporting its treatment. However, obesity and a high intake of meat, heme iron and Vitamin D and use of smokeless tobacco may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. An experimental study found that PSK usually extracted from Turkey tail mushrooms might have anti-cancer properties and a potential to synergize with a specific chemotherapy to fight pancreatic cancer. Being physically active and taking the right foods and supplements as part of a healthy diet is essential for fighting pancreatic cancer.
“What should I eat?” is the most frequently asked question to cancer dieticians and physicians. The right answer depends upon cancer type, underlying genomics, current treatments, any allergies, lifestyle information, and factors like BMI.
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Top 10 Foods and Supplements to Avoid for Cancer
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Cancer patients often have to deal with different chemotherapy side effects which affect their quality of life and look out for alternative therapies for cancer. Taking the right nutrition and supplements based on scientific considerations (avoiding guesswork and random selection) is the best natural remedy for cancer and treatment related side-effects.