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Eat Antioxidants to Lower Pancreatic Cancer Risk?

Are Vitamins E and C and Selenium the Key to Preventing Pancreatic Cancer?

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 24, 2012 -- New research suggests that diets rich in antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium may help lower the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

According to the study, people whose diets had a higher amount of foods loaded with these antioxidants were two-thirds less likely to develop pancreatic cancer when compared to people who had the least amount of these nutrients in their diets.

The study is published online in the journal Gut.

Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that protect cells from the damage of "free radicals." Free radicals are destructive fragments of oxygen that have been linked to cancer and other diseases. The new findings show an association between these foods and pancreatic cancer risk, but they do not tell us if or how antioxidants actually prevent pancreatic cancer.

"Vitamins C and E and selenium are good for your general health. And it may be that they help to prevent against pancreatic cancer as well. But more study is needed before we can say that for sure," says study researcher Andrew R. Hart, MD. He is a senior lecturer in gastroenterology at Norwich Medical School in East Anglia, Norwich, U.K.

If this association turns out to be causal, antioxidants may help prevent as many as one in 12 cases of pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 43,920 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012. About 37,390 people will die from the disease.

Antioxidant Trio Slashes Pancreatic Cancer Risk

Researchers analyzed the seven-day food diaries of more than 23,500 people aged 40 to 74. Forty-nine people developed pancreatic cancer within 10 years of entering the study. Researchers then compared diets among people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to those of nearly 4,000 people without pancreatic cancer.

People who ate more selenium were 50% less likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared to those who ate the least amounts of selenium-rich foods. And those whose vitamin C, E, and selenium intake was in the top 75% were 67% less likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who ate the lowest amount of foods rich in this trio of antioxidants.

Researchers only looked at foods rich in these nutrients, not individual supplements. Vitamin C is found in fruits and vegetables such as :

  • citrus fruits
  • red berries
  • red and green bell peppers

Vitamin E can be found in food such as:

  • vegetable oils
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • egg yolk

Selenium is a mineral found in soil. Some selenium-rich foods include:

  • cereal
  • fish
  • meat

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is a long, flat gland that lies in the abdomen behind the stomach. Its job is to produce enzymes that help with digestion. It also produces certain hormones that maintain the proper level of blood sugar.

Researchers still don't fully understand the cause of pancreatic cancer. Smoking and diabetes are considered risk factors. Some evidence points to obesity as another potential risk.

Simon Yeung, PharmD, reviewed the new findings for WebMD. He is a pharmacist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "The study is very preliminary and just shows an interesting association between foods and pancreatic cancer."

Other studies have shown that high amounts of vitamin E and selenium may increase risk of other cancers such as prostate cancer. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for overall good health. But Yeung says it is too early to make any recommendations about specific ways to lower your risk for pancreatic cancer.

Vincent Vinciguerra, MD, is a little bit more optimistic about the new findings and their implications for people at risk for pancreatic cancer. He is the chief of the Don Monti Division of Oncology/Hematology at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Monter Cancer Center in Lake Success, N.Y.

"This gives us hope that we may be able to implicate some nutritional factors in causing pancreatic cancer," he says. "If it's true, we may finally have something to offer people at high risk for this cancer."

Still, "it has been difficult to show that there are benefits of antioxidants for various types of cancer," he says. "Every type of cancer is different, so we are hopeful, especially because we don't have a lot of options for lowering risk of pancreatic cancer."

SOURCES: American Cancer Society. Andrew R. Hart, MD, senior lecturer, gastroenterology, Norwich Medical School, East Anglia, Norwich, UK. Simon Yeung, PharmD, pharmacist, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City. Vincent Vinciguerra, MD, chief, Don Monti Division of Oncology/Hematology at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Monter Cancer Center, Lake Success, N.Y. Banim PJR et al. Gut. 2012. In press.

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