What a Diabetes Diagnosis After Age 50 and Pancreatic Cancer Have in Common

A recently published study demonstrated that a diagnosis of new onset diabetes (NOD) after age 50 could be an early sign of pancreatic cancer.

The study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, followed nearly 50,000 African-American and Hispanic men and women above the age of 50 for approximately 20 years. None of the participants had diabetes or pancreatic cancer at the beginning of the study. Over the course of the study, about 16,000 developed diabetes and about 400 developed pancreatic cancer.

What the study researchers found is that there seems to be a two-way relationship between the two diseases: diabetes may contribute to or result from pancreatic cancer. However, those individuals with NOD were more than twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared with those who did not develop diabetes, according to a lead author of the study.

The study also found that more than 50 percent of the diabetic individuals with pancreatic cancer were diagnosed with diabetes within three years of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, so it developed relatively quickly.

Dr. Ashok Saluja, director of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute, says this study is significant on many levels: “It’s a large study and geared specifically to African-Americans and Hispanics, who typically have a higher incidence of diabetes and pancreatic cancer to begin with. In South Florida, we have a significant number of minorities who, in the past, have not been studied in large-scale trials.”

But the significance of these findings extends beyond the minority population. “We don’t know the risks that lead to this disease, but we know that smoking, obesity and age are certainly contributors to that risk,” says Dr. Saluja. According to the American Cancer Society, smoking is estimated to cause approximately 30 percent of pancreatic cancer cases. Those same risk factors can also lead to the development of diabetes.

Dr. Saluja says that the incidence of pancreatic cancer is increasing at an alarming rate. In the last ten or so years, it has moved from the fourth to the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. In less than 10 years, it is projected to rank second. “We are seeing more than 54,000 new cases in this country a year. In 25 years, it has almost doubled. This serious condition has a five-year survival rate of less than seven percent and very non-specific symptoms like abdominal pain, weight loss and fatigue.”

The study is giving clinicians a better way to identify people at high risk for pancreatic cancer. When patients develop new onset diabetes after age 50, it should put their physicians on alert that they need to be monitored for pancreatic cancer more closely. “Particularly, if you’re a minority and you are diagnosed with recent-onset diabetes, you should discuss with your doctor the possibility for developing cancer, especially if you have any symptoms,” says Dr. Saluja.

Doctors and researchers are taking note.

Within six months or so, he says, a National Institutes of Health study will start recruiting for a large trial of 10,000 patients across the country with NOD over age 50 to monitor them for signs of pancreatic cancer to catch it early.


Mary Jo Blackwood, RN, MPH, is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog. She is a two-time breast cancer thriver, and a long-time freelance medical writer based in St. Louis, MO and Hartsel, CO. She has written physician-to-physician magazine articles, consumer health articles, and webpages for cancer patients, among other things.