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The Link between Diabetes and Cancer…
and Reducing the Risk of Both

Older Woman HikingWith the recent disclosure by actor Tom Hanks that he has type 2 diabetes, this serious – but manageable – illness has once again captured the public’s attention. But with diabetes affecting one out of every ten American adults, we should continue to keep the disease in the forefront of our prevention and management efforts – both at home and in the workplace – especially since a growing body of evidence now suggests that people with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, particularly of the liver, endometrium, pancreas, bladder, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A smaller increase in risk also exists for colon and breast cancers.

According to AICR Nutrition Advisor Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, the link between type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes (which affects about one-third of adults) is not just coincidental. “As we're learning about how cancer development is linked to elevated levels of insulin and inflammation, it's becoming more apparent that the metabolic abnormalities in diabetes and pre-diabetes are the perfect conditions in the body for cancer to develop,” says Collins, who adds that the increase in obesity and the sedentary quality of our lives are conditions common to both type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Though diabetes and cancer are not always preventable, there are many lifestyle changes we can make to lower our risk of developing either or both diseases, Collins suggests.

For starters, watch your weight. “If you’ve been gaining weight, or have fat around your waist in particular, then it's time to take action,” says Collins. “And if you have elevated triglycerides or your blood pressure is creeping up, these are signs that metabolically things are not right in your body.”

You don't need a massive amount of weight loss to make a difference. Research shows that for people who have pre-diabetes, even a 5 to 7 percent weight loss is enough to dramatically reduce their risk of developing diabetes. “It doesn't mean going on a diet,” says Collins. “Take a look at your eating habits. Where can you cut 500 calories a day? It might mean giving up a bottle of soda a day or having a smaller bowl of cereal (whole grain and watch the sugar, please!). If you already have diabetes, the same high-fiber diet that AICR recommends for cancer prevention can be helpful in managing your glucose levels as well. A high-fiber diet, with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans can be beneficial (but check with your doctor, especially when it comes to fruit, since not all fruits are recommended for those with diabetes).

More and more businesses are doing what they can to help their employees watch what they eat. This year, for example, the free vending machines at Veterans United Home Loans Company went through a drastic makeover, according to Life Balance Department Team Leader Kate Quinn. Candy bars were replaced with granola bars, chips with baked varieties, and the fresh fruit fridge grew in size to make room for more yogurt, carrots sticks, and fresh fruit. Each Monday lunch is also catered, free of charge to the employees, and includes a vegetarian option. The company also has hired a wellness coordinator to support the fitness and nutrition needs of its employees and has begun offering healthy cooking demonstrations each month.

Ironically, Quinn’s 9-year-old son was recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and she has been learning a lot herself about making healthy choices each day. Because of that awareness, she has added books like “Low Carb Slow Cooker” and “Eat This, Not That” to the company’s employee resource center, a lending library available free of charge for employees, that offers help ranging from professional development to financial management to healthy eating.

The company – which has 1,200 employees nationwide and has won the American Heart Association Fit-Friendly workplace award and the Alliance for Work-Life Progress 2013 Seal of Distinction--also provides four onsite Weight Watchers classes, which also include the e-tools and Weight Watchers apps for mobile devices to help employees keep track of their daily points.

Get moving. Research in both diabetes and cancer has shown that physical activity – like a 30- minute walk a day, all at once or in two to three blocks – will reduce inflammation and bring down insulin levels, which can dramatically lower your risk of developing both diabetes and cancer. “In one day's walk you are making a change in insulin resistance and other metabolic conditions that can make a big difference,” says Collins.

Veterans United is just as committed to its employees’ physical fitness as it is to their dietary health. In Summer 2012, the company’s fitness challenge introduced employees to the Fitbit Ultra Tracker, which allowed them to keep track of their activity, calories burned, and even their sleep patterns. “Using the Fitbit app, the employees were also able to log food, activities, and more,” says Quinn.

In January 2013, a new 8-week fitness challenge was launched where employees earned a FitbitONE Tracker simply by using the Bluetooth technology to upload their personal activity to their smartphones, which allowed them to use the Fitbit app to keep track of the calories they were burning as well as the calories they were consuming.

And since last year, the company has covered the entire cost of a gym membership for every full-time employee.

Changing the habits of your workplace doesn’t have to be a daunting process. Step-by-step (sometimes literally) measures can yield big results. “There were employees who simply became accustomed to the free candy bar they would get out of the vending machine every afternoon,” Veterans United’s Kate Quinn acknowledges. “When they were no longer available, their feelings had to be dealt with, but overall, it is fair to say our employees have adjusted.”


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