Approximately 25.8 million people in the United States, approximately 8.3% of the population, have diabetes. It is estimated that 18.8 million have been diagnosed, but unfortunately, 7.0 million people, or over one fourth, are unaware that they have the disease.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease in which the body does not make or properly use a pancreatic hormone called insulin. Insulin helps the body utilize glucose (sugar) efficiently. Normally, insulin allows glucose to enter cells to be used for energy. In the case of diabetes, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the amount that is produced is not fully effective. Instead of entering cells, the glucose remains in the blood resulting in high blood glucose levels. Diabetes can cause major health problems, such as high-blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease and neuropathy. Long-term high blood glucose levels can lead to cell damage and long-term complications.
There are several types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes results from the body’s inability to produce insulin and accounts for approximately 5% of those diagnosed with the disease. Type 2 diabetes results from the body’s failure to properly use insulin combined with insulin deficiency and accounts for most diagnosed cases of diabetes in the United States. Pre-diabetes occurs when a person’s blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but are not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes. Approximately 79 million Americans are pre-diabetic. Other types of diabetes result from specific genetic conditions, surgery, medications, infections, pancreatic diseases and other illnesses.
How does diabetes relate to pancreatic cancer?
Diabetes may be either a risk factor or a symptom of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is more likely to occur in people who have long-standing (over 5 years) diabetes than in people who do not have diabetes. In pancreatic cancer patients who have had diabetes for less than five years, it is unclear if the diabetes contributed to the cancer or if the precancerous cells caused the diabetes.
Also, research studies suggest that new-onset diabetes in people over 50 may be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. A sudden change in blood sugar levels in diabetics who previously had well-controlled diabetes may also be a sign of pancreatic cancer.
What foods may help control diabetes?
People with diabetes and cancer have special nutritional needs. An individual can have a positive influence on his/her blood glucose and overall health by choosing foods wisely. By eating well-balanced meals, individuals can keep their blood glucose level as close to normal (non-diabetes level) as possible. The proper balance of nutrients from food, medication, physical activity and nutritional supplements is needed to improve blood glucose control, physical healing, weight maintenance and quality of life.
No single food will supply all the nutrients a body needs, so good nutrition means eating a variety of foods. It is important to eat foods from each group at each meal every day.
Foods are divided into five main groups:
- Fruits and vegetables (oranges, apples, bananas, carrots, and spinach)
- Whole grains, cereals, and bread (wheat, rice, oats, bran and barley)
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, and yogurt)
- Meats and meat substitutes (fish, poultry, eggs, dried beans, and nuts)
- Fats and oils (oil, butter, and margarine)
It is important to eat foods from each food group at each meal every day. Meals and snacks should include starch/grains, protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables and fats. By eating foods from each food group at each meal, an individual ensures that the body has a proper balance of all nutrients it needs to function. Eating meals and snacks at regular times is also necessary for controlling blood sugar levels.
The body uses calories from carbohydrates for energy and uses protein to build lean body mass. Choosing foods with complex carbohydrates, such as starch and fiber, may help in the control of blood glucose levels. Plant-based foods contain fiber that can help lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Foods high in fiber include: bran cereals, cooked beans and peas, whole-grain bread, fruits and vegetables. Eating high-protein foods and small amounts of healthy fat with every meal and snack also may help control blood sugar levels. High-protein foods include: dried beans, peas, lentils, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Foods high in healthy fats include: olive, canola and peanut oils, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds and fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon.
Should diabetics with pancreatic cancer avoid eating all sugar?
No, unless this is the advice of a physician or dietitian. Cutting all forms of sugar out of the diet will not result in the death of cancer cells because cancer cells cannot be starved. Glucose is the basic food source for all cells, including cancer cells. In a person with cancer, metabolic changes can cause the body to break down body fat and lean body mass to make energy for both cancer cells and healthy cells. This is the case regardless of sugar intake. It may be necessary to avoid foods high in simple sugars if the individual experiences problems with watery diarrhea after eating such foods. Foods high in simple sugars include rich desserts, ice cream, candy, sweetened drinks and fruits packed in syrup.
If the patient is experiencing weight loss unrelated to blood sugar control, it may be caused by cancer induced weight loss, called cancer cachexia. In this situation, chemical changes in the body cause the breakdown of body fat and lean body mass to make energy for cancer and healthy cells. It may be necessary to introduce another supplement into the diet. Consult your doctor or dietitian to find out which supplement is right for you.
Who can help me create an appropriate diet?
If you or a loved one has pancreatic cancer and diabetes, consider consulting a registered dietitian (RD) who understands these two conditions. A registered dietitian has expertise in how the body uses food and can teach you how the food you eat affects blood glucose level and how to coordinate diabetes medications and meal schedules. A registered dietitian can also provide guidance about nutritional supplements that may be helpful for patients experiencing weight loss related to the cancer.
Please consult with a physician for direction on the proper management of diabetes.
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For more information on diabetes or for free, in-depth and personalized resources and information on pancreatic cancer, contact a PanCAN Patient Services Case Manager.