Jessica Cote and Danielle Shapiro, MD, MPH, Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund
Pancreatic cancer is rare–less than 2% of Americans will develop it in their lifetimes. However, pancreatic cancer is the 4th most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. claiming more than 43,000 American lives in 2017. The good news is that prevention is possible, since most pancreatic cancers are not cause by inherited genes. Smoking and alcohol use are the major known causes, and can double the lifetime risk to about 3%. Quitting smoking and cutting back on alcohol are good ways to prevent pancreatic cancer and so is a healthy mouth and gut. Scientists have recently discovered that the bacteria living in our bodies can help us stay healthy and ward off dangerous cancers.
What is the Microbiome?
Inside our bodies we have hundreds of type of living bacteria and other organisms; this community of microorganisms is called the microbiome. These organisms live in harmony with our body and can keep us from getting sick, so we call them “probiotic” or “good bacteria.” In 2012, Scientists from the National Institutes of Health started the Human Microbiome Project to study the role of the microbiome in human health and disease.
We can increase the amounts of good bacteria in our body by eating foods rich in natural probiotics or taking a probiotic supplement. Probiotic-rich foods include: yogurt, sourdough bread, sour pickles, soft cheeses, sauerkraut, tempeh (fermented soy and grains), and other foods. Check out this list — you’re bound to find something you like!
Oral Bacteria and Pancreatic Cancer
A 2017 review found that gum disease can increase the chances of developing pancreatic cancer in a lifetime to about 2.4% to 3.2%. When scientists studied the blood of patients before they got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, they began to find patterns of “bad” vs. “good” bacteria.
Since diagnosing cancer early is the key to effective treatment, scientists hope that it will soon be possible to have a simple screening test for pancreatic cancer by testing the saliva for certain bacteria. They believe that 9 times out of 10, if certain bacteria are present, the person is not likely to have pancreatic cancer.
Although medical experts aren’t completely certain how to remove bad bacteria from the mouth and gums, they usually recommend flossing and brushing teeth regularly as well as rinsing with mouthwash as the best ways to get rid of them.
Gut Bacteria and Pancreatic Cancer
Like the mouth, certain bacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract may have a role to play in the development of pancreatic cancer. The bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which causes stomach ulcers and stomach cancer, can increase the lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer to about 2.4%. These trends were more frequently seen in people living in Europe and East Asia rather than North America, which suggests that environment, diet (red meat or high temperature foods), and genetics may all help to increase or decrease the chances of developing pancreatic cancer.
The Bottom Line
More research is needed to understand the link between bacteria and pancreatic cancer, and medical experts have not yet figured out how best to reduce the number of harmful bacteria in our bodies and increase the good kind. Until then, take good care of your mouth (brushing and flossing and regular visits to your dentist) and keep your gut healthy by eating fruits, vegetables, and foods rich in natural probiotics such as yogurt.
- National Cancer Institute. Cancer Stat Facts: Pancreas Cancer. Accessed Dec. 18, 2017. Available online: https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/pancreas.html.
- National Cancer Institute. Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. (Dec. 23, 2016). Available online: https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/patient/pancreatic-treatment-pdq#section/_162.
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- Ertz-Archambault N, Keim P, Von Hoff D. Microbiome and pancreatic cancer: A comprehensive topic review of literature. World Journal of Gastroenterology. 2017;23(10):1899-1908. doi:10.3748/wjg.v23.i10.1899.
- Xiao M, Wang Y, Gao Y. Association between Helicobacter pylori Infection and Pancreatic Cancer Development: A Meta-Analysis. Miao X, ed. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(9):e75559. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075559.