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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Pivotal VA Study Finds Intra-Abdominal Fat Predicts Survival in Pancreatic Cancer

May 3, 2010

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According to researchers at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, a patient’s waist circumference can serve as a predictor as to whether the patient will experience complications in recovering from rectal cancer surgery. Above, David H. Berger, M.D., M.H.C.M., co-author of the paper and MEDVAMC Operative Care Line Executive (right) performs surgery with (from left) Ronnie Blake, health technician, David Chafey, M.D., resident, and Kostas Votanopoulos, M.D., chief resident. PHOTO BY: Mike Lane, MEDVAMC Media Section


HOUSTON – A new study shows intra-abdominal fat can predict a pancreatic cancer patient’s chances of survival. Researchers at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) and Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) found the more visceral fat, or the fat located inside the belly, the worse a patient’s chances for survival.

“Obesity is known to increase the risk of numerous types of cancer including colon, breast, prostate, and endometrial, and it is thought it is related to hormones or chemicals produced by fat,” said David H. Berger, M.D., M.H.C.M., co-author of the paper, MEDVAMC Operative Care Line Executive, and professor of Surgery at BCM. “However, our study determined that the location of the fat is the key to survival rates.”

Berger and Courtney Balentine, M.D., co-author of the paper, a MEDVAMC surgical resident, and a fellow in surgical research at BCM, sought to determine if patients with central obesity had poorer chances of survival from pancreatic cancer. Typically, body mass index (BMI) is used to determine whether a patient is overweight or obese. BMI is a common measurement that uses a person’s height and weight to formulate a measure of overweight or obesity.

“We have known that central obesity produces different hormones and chemicals than other types of obesity, and that these hormones are likely to stimulate cancer cells,” said Balentine. “We wanted to determine the benefits of examining not only if a patient is obese, but where that fat is distributed.”

Using computed tomography (CT) scans of 61 patients, the researchers measured the distance between the back of the kidney and the abdominal wall to determine the amount of visceral fat in the patient. They found the more intra-abdominal fat a patient had, the worse his or her prognosis. Patients were divided into four groups based on the amount of intra-abdominal fat. The best outcomes were seen in patients with the least intra-abdominal fat. Those with more fat had between a 30 percent and 400 percent increase in mortality.