Confirmed: diabetes raises risk of cancer


It’s not breaking news that the world is getting fatter. What is also not quite so breaking news is that our expanding waistbands are increasing the new diagnoses of diabetes. And if that isn’t a kick in the stomach, a new major study has confirmed that diabetes increases the risk of four different types of cancer.

It’s a double-whammy

Being overweight itself increases the risk of cancer, it also increases the risk of diabetes. And now we find that if we become diabetic, our chances of developing cancer increases – it’s a double-whammy!

Being overweight is not a status that most of us ever wanted to see ourselves in. If you’ve been overweight from childhood, then you’ve possibly grown up with a whole host of stigma, personal self-esteem issues, and even bullying.

The last thing you want to hear is the health risks you’ll run into as each birthday passes. Weight management services in many countries, not just the UK, are grossly underfunded – and this new study goes to show that we’re still concentrating on the outcomes, and not the cause.

We’ll look at this a bit more later, but this article is not about fat-shaming. It’s another space out there to drive home the message that we must invest more into helping people with weight management problems – both psychologically and nutritionally.

The study

A global review conducted at the George Institute for Global Health (Australia) looked at almost 20 million people from 47 studies  in order to firmly establish the link between diabetes and cancer.

Specifically, the team found that the link was strongest for developing kidney, oral and stomach cancers and leukaemia. Leukaemia is a blood-borne disease that is often listed as a cancer.

If you’re a woman, I’m afraid the news does not get any better – the link was stronger for females, with the exception of liver cancer – where the risk is higher for men.

Key findings from the study included:

  • Women with diabetes were 27% more likely to develop cancer than women without diabetes. For men the risk was 19% higher.
  • Researchers also found that diabetes was a risk factor for the majority of cancers of specific parts of the body for both men and women.
  • Overall, it was calculated that women with diabetes were 6% more likely overall to develop any form of cancer than men with diabetes.
  • There were significantly higher risks for women with diabetes for developing cancer of the kidney (11% higher), oral cancer (13% higher), stomach cancer (14% higher) and leukaemia (15% higher) compared to men with the condition.
  • For liver cancer, the risk was 12% lower for women with diabetes compared to men with diabetes.


It is not completely understood why either diabetes leads to a higher risk of cancer, or why women are more likely to be affected.

Possible causes are two-fold. Raised glucose in the blood may cause DNA damage (the “database” of genetic information in our cells that essentially explains why you are uniquely you).

Cancer is essentially a condition in our bodies where cells replicate themselves in an uncontrolled way due to DNA damage.

And why women? There are a number of theories, but only further studies would really bring to light the true cause. Women and men are simply prone to different diseases – or prone to worse or better outcomes in certain diseases.

A prime example of this is heart disease. We know that this tends to affect men far more than women. But this explanation isn’t good enough, so it’s likely that studies will look into this at some point in the future.

What next?

It’s great that we’ve invested so much into research on the causes of disease, and we’re discovering more and more about why cancer occurs in some and not in others.

But with more evidence showing the growing burden of obesity on global healthcare – what exactly are we all doing about it? Is standing up and pointing at overweight people, blaming them for the growing health costs the right thing to do? Is it right to blame the food industry? Advertising and TV?

Being overweight is much much more complicated than that, and we need a meteoric shift in the way we think about obesity and health.

If you are thin, and eat sugar and fat in huge quantities “because you can and you don’t put on weight”, you are kidding yourself that you will not become any less of a statistic than someone carrying two or three times as much weight as you.

It’s not all about weight – it’s also about metabolic health. Whilst being overweight and metabolically unhealthy is worse than being thin and metabolically unhealthy, it’s still a pretty significant risk factor!

Diabetes control

It’s vitally important that once someone has a diagnosis of diabetes, they make concerted efforts to control the condition. This could help reduce risks of other diseases.

What does this control mean? It means ensuring that blood sugar levels are kept within the normal range by careful monitoring of blood sugar and management of carbohydrates.

The British NHS suggests that diabetics follow the national guidelines on healthy eating, which focus meals on starchy carbohydrates – but that message is a little one size fits all approach.

The best advice I can give is to talk to your diabetic nurse about diet and be familiar with the global diabetes community.

There are some great results with people following low calorie and very low calorie diets – but it is highly advisable that very low calorie diets are followed with the supervision of a dietitian.

We now know that obesity can lead to several types of cancer (such as bowel cancer and breast cancer in women); we also know that obesity can lead to diabetes – specifically type 2 diabetes.

We now know that diabetes raises the risk of all cancers, particularly in women.

Let’s stop this and support those who need it and invest more in better and effective weight management schemes everywhere it’s required.

Image by TypographyImages – Pixabay

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