Your odds of developing cancer are determined by a complex set of risk factors that are genetic, environmental, and behavioral—and when it comes to your pancreatic cancer risk, there’s one little-known genetic risk factor that experts say could play a significant role: your blood type.
In fact, a 2009 study performed by Harvard experts found that people with one blood type in particular are 72 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those with the lowest-risk blood type. “The association between blood type and pancreatic cancer risk provides a new avenue for getting at the disease’s underlying biological mechanisms,” Brian Wolpin, the study’s lead author and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School said via press release. “Understanding the biology will put us in a better position to intervene so the cancer doesn’t develop or progress.” Read on to find out whether you’re at heightened risk, and to learn how to take control of your other risk factors.
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Your pancreas is an organ located behind your lower stomach, measuring about six inches in length. Its main purpose is regulating your digestion and metabolism by secreting enzymes and hormones.
In 2020, over 57,000 individuals in the U.S. were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a condition which most commonly develops in the cells that line the pancreatic ducts. A shocking 47,000 of those patients died from their condition, say experts from Johns Hopkins University. This makes pancreatic cancer “one of the most deadly of all types of cancer,” despite being relatively rare.
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The high mortality rate associated with pancreatic cancer is due at least in part to the fact that it is often detected late. “Pancreatic cancer is seldom detected at its early stages when it’s most curable,” notes the Mayo Clinic. “This is because it often doesn’t cause symptoms until after it has spread to other organs.”
However, when patients do display symptoms, they often include jaundice, dark urine, itchy skin, light colored stool, abdominal or back pain, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, blood clots, or the onset of diabetes. If you notice these symptoms, speak with your doctor to find out whether screening is right for you.
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According to a 2009 study conducted by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, your chances of developing pancreatic cancer are significantly linked to one surprising factor: your blood type. “Studies done several decades ago suggested a link between blood type and the risk of various malignancies, including pancreatic cancer, but they were limited by the fact that they ‘looked back’ at cancers that had already occurred and involved relatively few cases,” the lead author, Wolpin, told The Harvard Gazette. “We wanted to see if the association held up using modern patient cohorts and research techniques,” he added.
What the team found was striking: people with type B blood had a 72 percent higher chance of developing pancreatic cancer compared to the lowest risk blood type, O. Those with type A and type AB blood were also considered at elevated risk, though not as dramatically: type A individuals had a 32 percent higher risk, and type AB individuals had a 51 percent higher risk, compared with type O individuals. “Researchers speculate that alterations in the antigens may interfere with the cells’ ability to signal and adhere to one another, and with the immune system’s ability to detect abnormal cells—potentially setting the stage for cancer,” The Harvard Gazette reported.
Besides your blood type, several other risk factors for pancreatic cancer cannot be changed. Those include your age, family history, race, gender at birth, and the presence of certain genetic syndromes.
However, experts say many factors are within your power to change, and by taking control of them, you may be able to mitigate your overall risk of developing pancreatic cancer. These include quitting smoking, not drinking more alcohol than is recommended, maintaining a healthy weight, managing diabetes, and limiting your exposure to certain chemicals. Speak with your doctor to learn more about lowering your risk of this and other types of cancer.