Type 2 Diabetes and Your Cancer Risk


Gina Garippo

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If you have diabetes, you probably know that the disease increases your chance of developing certain health conditions like heart disease and kidney problems. But what about cancer? Research shows that people who have diabetes are at greater risk for some types of cancer than those who do not have diabetes. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Understanding Your Risk

Studies show that people with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to develop liver, pancreatic, and endometrial cancer as those without the disease. Diabetes is also linked to a greater incidence of colorectal, breast, and bladder cancer. (One piece of good news: Men with diabetes have a lower chance of developing prostate cancer.) The big question is why?

Scientists are still trying to figure out whether the increased risk for these cancers is due to biological factors, such as high blood sugar, or if common risk factors like obesity are to blame. The truth is still unclear, but both factors may play a role.

At Your Appointment

Diabetes At Your Appointment Guide

Possible Biological Connection

Experts believe that excess insulin in the blood, high blood sugar, and chronic inflammation may directly affect the development of cancer. Researchers speculate that these three factors affect the body in complex ways that allow cancer cells to grow and spread.

Metformin, a commonly prescribed drug that treats diabetes by reducing levels of circulating glucose and insulin, has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and cancer death in people with diabetes. Research indicates the drug may help kill cancer cells and make some cancer treatments more effective. But research regarding metformin and cancer is still limited. Although these studies show some kind of connection between uncontrolled diabetes and cancer, experts say cancer risk should not play a major factor in diabetes treatment decisions. And if you take metformin, it is important to have your creatinine levels evaluated to make sure your kidneys are functioning properly.

Common Risk Factors

Although some studies point to a direct link between diabetes and cancer, researchers still can’t say for sure that diabetes causes cancer. However, experts do know that diabetes and cancer share many of the same risk factors. Luckily, you can take steps to reduce these risks.

Shared risk factors for both diabetes and cancer include age, gender (men are more likely than women to develop diabetes as well as some cancers), obesity, physical activity, diet, alcohol consumption, and smoking status.

Although it’s impossible to change our age or gender, we can modify the other risks through lifestyle changes. Below are a few ways to reduce your risk for cancer and help manage your diabetes:

If you are overweight, try to shed a few pounds. Losing even just 7% of your body weight (14 pounds for a 200-pound person) can make a big difference.

Try to eat a diet low in red and processed meats and higher in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Aim for 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity, like brisk walking, five days a week.

If you smoke, get help to quit. Go to smokefree.gov.

If you drink alcohol, do so only in moderation. That means no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.

Work with your doctor to get recommended cancer screenings.

Remember, you have the power to reduce your risk for cancer by making better lifestyle choices every day. Although it may be difficult to make all these changes at once, even small changes can add up to better health in the future. 

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that people who have diabetes are at greater risk for some types of cancer than those who do not have diabetes. However, experts say cancer risk should not play a major factor in diabetes treatment decisions.
  • It is still unclear whether the increased risk for cancer is due to biological factors, such as high blood sugar and chronic inflammation, or common risk factors like obesity.
  • Lifestyle changes can reduce your risk for cancer and help you manage diabetes. Losing weight, eating a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, drinking in moderation, and getting cancer screenings can help.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 20, 2015

© 2015 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Diabetes and Cancer: A Consensus Report. Giovannucci, E., et al. Diabetes Care. 2010. 33(7):1674-85. (http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/33/7/1674.full.pdf+html);
  2. Diabetes and Cancer: What's the Connection? American Diabetes Association. October 2012. (http://forecast.diabetes.org/cancer-oct2012);
  3. Smokefree.gov (http://smokefree.gov);
  4. Diabetes and Cancer. American Diabetes Association (http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/prevention/checkup-america/diabetes-and-cancer.html);
  5. Small Steps for Your Health. American Diabetes Association. (http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/prevention/checkup-america/small-steps.html);

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