Exposure to the hepatitis B virus increases a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer two and a half times. Pancreatic cancer usually has a poor prognosis, as in most cases by the time it is diagnosed it has already spread. There are several known risk factors for pancreatic cancer, these include:
- Heavy alcohol consumption
- Cigarette smoking
- Diabetes and Syndrome X (insulin resistance)
- A high sugar diet
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Hepatitis B infects approximately two billion people worldwide. It is most common in Asia and Africa and is endemic in China. Infection occurs through exposure to infected blood or body fluids. Hepatitis B infection can be either acute or chronic. Acute infection means the immune system clears the virus from the body within weeks or months. Chronic infection means that the virus persists in the body, and this increases the risk of chronic liver disease, including cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer by approximately 40 percent.
Researchers from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre in Texas believe that because hepatitis B is a systemic infection (it travels throughout the body), some of the virus gets deposited in the pancreas. Also, because the liver and pancreas are so close to each other in the abdominal cavity, inflammation in the liver may trigger inflammation in the pancreas.
The researchers compared blood samples taken from 476 patients with pancreatic cancer with 879 healthy people of the same age and race. Having antibodies against hepatitis B in the bloodstream placed the patients at a 2.5 fold higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Patients who had both diabetes and hepatitis B had a sevenfold increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The researchers also found that the administration of chemotherapy to pancreatic cancer patients (which weakens the immune system), can reactivate the hepatitis B virus and complicate the cancer treatment.
The majority of the risk factors for pancreatic cancer are modifiable, meaning you have control over them. Don’t smoke cigarettes, drink excessive alcohol or become overweight and you have a good chance of avoiding pancreatic cancer. This is vitally important for anyone who has had hepatitis B. Most people contract hepatitis B through unprotected sex with an infected person, use of contaminated needles or syringes and infants are born with the virus if their mother is infected.
Hassan, M et al. Association between hepatitis B virus and pancreatic cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2008;26:4557-4562.