Diabetes and Cancer Together: Which Disease to Address First?

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You’re a person with diabetes who has just learned that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Which disease should take precedence in your life?

If you are like most people who have been in that situation, you are more likely to pay full attention to addressing your cancer. Your reasoning seems logical: Cancer, left untreated, can become a rapid killer. Diabetes, a manageable disease, can be ignored for awhile before any truly bad consequences set in.

However, according to a Northwestern University study, diabetic cancer patients who cease treating their high blood sugars risk weakening their immune systems so much that they can die from something other than cancer. Death-dealing non-cancerous maladies can include severe kidney damage and gangrene in slow-healing, nerve-damaged limbs.

The study at Northwestern’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center examined five years’ worth of health records for 166,000 commercial insurance patients and 56,000 Medicare Advantage patients. They found a statistically significant difference in the number of emergency room visits between cancer patients who understood the need to test and control their blood sugars regularly and cancer patients who neglected to do so.

Of the patients who were aware of the need to treat their diabetes, 65.2 percent had their A1c’s tested with a doctor at least twice over a three-year period. Among those who did not actively monitor their diabetes, 48 percent had their hemoglobin tested once over the same span.
As a result, patients who actively managed their diabetes made 416 emergency room visits over three years versus 463 emergency room visits for the patients who did not manage the disease.

Researchers concluded that diabetes patients with cancer must understand the need to treat both diseases simultaneously, especially with regard to maintaining a strong immune system that can help fight cancer.

An abstract of the research is available online.

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