From the Journals

Diabetes plus weight loss equals increased risk of pancreatic cancer



A new study has linked recent-onset diabetes and subsequent weight loss to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, indicating a distinct group of individuals to screen early for this deadly disease.

“The likelihood of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis was even further elevated among individuals with older age, healthy weight before weight loss, and unintentional weight loss,” wrote Chen Yuan, ScD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston. The study was published in JAMA Oncology.

To determine whether an association exists between diabetes plus weight change and pancreatic cancer, the researchers analyzed decades of medical history data from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS). The study population from the NHS included 112,818 women with a mean age of 59 years; the population from the HPFS included 46,207 men with a mean age of 65 years. Since enrollment – the baseline was 1978 for the NHS and 1988 for the HPFS – participants have provided follow-up information via biennial questionnaires.

Recent diabetes onset, weight loss boost cancer risk

From those combined groups, 1,116 incident cases of pancreatic cancer (0.7%) were identified. Compared with patients with no diabetes, patients with recent-onset diabetes had triple the risk of pancreatic cancer (age-adjusted hazard ratio, 2.97; 95% confidence interval, 2.31-3.82) and patients with longstanding diabetes had more than double the risk (HR, 2.16; 95% CI, 1.78-2.60). Patients with longer disease duration also had more than twice the risk of pancreatic cancer, with HRs of 2.25 for those with diabetes for 4-10 years (95% CI, 1.74-2.92) and 2.07 for more than 10 years (95% CI, 1.61-2.66).

Compared with patients who hadn’t lost any weight, patients who reported a 1- to 4-pound weight loss (HR, 1.25; 95% CI, 1.03-1.52), a 5- to 8-pound weight loss (HR, 1.33; 95% CI, 1.06-1.66), and a more than 8-pound weight loss (HR, 1.92; 95% CI, 1.58-2.32) had higher risks of pancreatic cancer. Patients with recent-onset diabetes and a 1- to 8-pound weight loss (91 incident cases per 100,000 person-years; 95% CI, 55-151) or a weight loss of more than 8 pounds (164 incident cases per 100,000 person years; 95% CI, 114-238) had a much higher incidence of pancreatic cancer, compared with patients with neither (16 incident cases per 100,000 person-years; 95% CI, 14-17).

After stratified analyses of patients with both recent-onset diabetes and weight loss, rates of pancreatic cancer were also notably high in those 70 years or older (234 cases per 100,000 person years), those with a body mass index of less than 25 kg/m2 before weight loss (400 cases per 100,000 person years), and those with a low likelihood of intentional weight loss (334 cases per 100,000 person years).

Dr. Paul S. Jellinger

Dr. Paul S. Jellinger

“I like the study because it reminds us of the importance of not thinking everyone that presents with type 2 diabetes necessarily has garden-variety diabetes,” Paul Jellinger, MD, of the Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Care in Hollywood, Fla., said in an interview. “I have always been concerned when a new-onset diabetic individual presents with no family history of diabetes or prediabetes, especially if they’re neither overweight nor obese. I have sometimes screened those individuals for pancreatic abnormalities.”

A call for screening

“This study highlights the consideration for further screening to those with weight loss at the time of diabetes diagnosis, which is very sensible given how unusual weight loss is as a presenting symptom at the time of diagnosis of typical type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Jellinger added. “The combination of weight loss and no family history of diabetes at the time of diagnosis should be an even stronger signal for pancreatic cancer screening and potential detection at a much earlier stage.”

The authors acknowledged their study’s limitations, including some patients with pancreatic cancer not returning their questionnaires and the timing of the questionnaires meaning that patients could’ve developed diabetes after returning it. In addition, they recognized that the participants were “predominantly White health professionals” and recommended a study of “additional patient populations” in the future.

The authors noted numerous potential conflicts of interest, including receiving grants and personal fees from various initiatives, organizations, and pharmaceutical companies.

Review the “AGA Clinical Practice Update on Pancreas Cancer Screening in High-Risk Individuals: Expert Review” for best practice advice for clinicians screening and diagnosing pancreatic cancer in high-risk individuals. Learn more at

SOURCE: Yuan C et al. JAMA Oncol. 2020 Aug 13. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2020.2948.

Next Article: