Carcinogens in grilled and baked chicken may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, while curcumin, the yellow pigment in the spice turmeric, may sometimes help even in advanced stages of the disease.
Pancreatic cancer is among the most aggressive forms of human cancer with a very high mortality rate. It represents the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States with an annual mortality of 32,000 dead. With a 5-year survival rate of only 3% and an average survival of less than 6 months, diagnosis of pancreatic cancer carries one of the poorest prognoses. It’s one of the worst things a doctor ever has to tell a patient. The only FDA-approved therapies for it, gemcitabine and erlotinib, produce objective responses in less than 10% of patients while causing severe side-effects in the majority. There is a desperate need for new options.
Clinical research to test new treatments are split up into phases. Phase I trials are just to make sure the treatment is safe, to see how much you can give someone before it becomes toxic. Curcumin, the natural yellow pigment in the spice turmeric, has passed a number of those. In fact, there was so little toxicity; the dosing was limited only by the number of pills that patients were willing to swallow.
Phase II is to see if it actually has any effect, and it did, in two of the 21 pancreatic cancer patients that were evaluated, one of whom had a 73% tumor reduction. This is what we like to see. (See the video for images.) Unfortunately, the effect was short-lived. This lesion remained small, but apparently, a curcumin-resistant tumor close emerged, whereas the other patient showed slow improvement over a year, stable disease for over 18 months. In fact, the only time their cancer markers bumped up was during a brief three-week stint where the curcumin was stopped. So it does seem to help some patients with pancreatic cancer, and most importantly, what’s the downside? No curcumin-related toxic effects up to doses of eight grams a day. What happens after eight? We don’t know because no one was willing to take that many pills. They were willing to go on one of the nastiest chemotherapy regimens on the planet but didn’t want to be inconvenienced with swallowing a lot of capsules.
Anyway, the only surefire way to beat pancreatic cancer is to prevent it in the first place. In 2010 I profiled this study, the largest such study in history, which found that dietary fat of animal origin was associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk, but which animal fat is the worst?
Well, the second largest study chimed in in 2013 to help answer that question. Poultry was the worst—the first finding of its kind, 72% increased risk of pancreatic cancer for every 50g of daily poultry consumption. That’s just like a quarter of a chicken breast. The reason white meat came out worse than red may be because of the cooked meat carcinogens in chicken, the heterocyclic amines that build up in grilled and baked chicken. These mutagenic chemicals have been associated with doubling pancreatic cancer risk.
Other recent studies include one out of San Francisco, implicating the standard American diet and one out of Italy: high consumption of meat and other animal products, as well as of refined carbs was associated with pancreatic cancer risk, whereas a diet rich in fruit and vegetables appeared to lower risk.
Eating meat may increase risk, whereas eating fake meat, has been found associated with significantly less risk. Those who eat plant-based meats like veggie burgers or veggie dogs three times or more a week had less than half the risk of fatal pancreatic cancer. Legumes and dried fruit were found to be similarly protective.
Dr. Greger is a graduate of Cornell University School of Agriculture and Tufts University School of Medicine. He is also the founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He is a physician, author and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety and public health issues. He has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, testified before Congress, appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and was an expert witness in the defense of Oprah Winfrey in the “meat defamation” trial. He is the author of the international bestseller “How Not To Die.” Currently, Dr. Greger serves on the advisory board for The Only Vegan At The Table and the North Texas Community Health Initiative. He is also the founder of NutritionFacts.org, a science-based nutrition information website with hundreds of videos available for free. “Mondays With Michael” is a weekly column featuring the latest in science-based nutrition information.