Less common cancers

Monday 12 September, 2016

Much of Health 2020 research has focused on cancers of the breast, prostate and bowel because these are the most common cancers affecting Australians and are therefore easier to study. Recently we have begun to focus more on the less common cancers which make up less than half of all new cancers diagnosed but cause more than half of all cancer deaths in Australia. Because these cancers are uncommon, and have poor prognosis, less epidemiological research has been carried out on them and little is known about why some people are at higher risk.

Health 2020 participants have contributed importantly to our understanding of risk factors associated with these less common cancers by pooling our data with other similar studies. For example, Health 2020 has pooled data with international teams for research on glioma (a brain cancer), multiple myeloma, pancreas and kidney cancers.

An increased risk of death from multiple myeloma (MM) was found to be associated with both overall obesity and for women who remain obese throughout adulthood. This may be due to the level of adiponectin, a hormone produced by fat cells. Adiponectin levels are usually higher in people who are leaner. Higher levels of adiponectin were found to be associated with a lower risk of developing MM, especially for overweight and obese people.

Pancreas cancer was also found to be associated with overall obesity, central obesity (fat around the waist), and with being overweight or obese in young adulthood. Researchers also showed that consuming dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, as well as calcium and vitamin D which are nutrients found in these foods, was not associated with pancreas cancer.

However, alcohol consumption of more than 3 standard drinks (375 ml of regular beer, 100 ml of wine or 30 ml of straight spirits) a day was associated with increased risk.

Health 2020 data have helped confirm earlier reports of an association between adult height and risk of glioma for men, especially for the subset of glioblastomas, although the association was less clear for women. More research is needed to determine if the genetic and environmental factors that influence adult height are also associated with the risk of glioblastoma.

Health 2020 has also contributed to studies of kidney cancer, showing that higher intakes of fruit and vegetables are associated with a lower risk; while no association was found with intakes of meat, fish or poultry. Another study found that higher levels of vitamin B6 in the blood were associated with a lower risk. Vitamin B6 is found in meat, fish, poultry, organ meats (such as liver), nuts, lentils, some fruits and vegetables, and Vegemite.

These findings illustrate the important contribution of Health 2020 participants to what we now know about some less common cancers.

Updated: 12 Sep, 2016