Author: Lesser, Rachel Levy
Date published: February 18, 2010
Jewish survivors of World War II who were exposed to the travails of the Holocaust are at a higher risk for cancer, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
The study was conducted by Lital Keinan-Boker of the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa in Israel, who gives credit to Micha Barchana, chief of the Israel National Cancer Registry for coming up with the concept.
Barchana, he said, "noticed that European-originated Israeli Jews have a higher cancer incidence as compared to other population groups."
Barchana hypothesized that exposure to the Holocaust may have accounted for that.
In order to study this hypothesis, Boker and her colleagues at the university compared the cancer rates in a cohort of oyer 300,000 Jews who were born in Europe and immigrated to Israel before or during World War II, with cancer incidences in a group of European-born Jews who immigrated after the war, up to 1989, and who were potentially exposed to the impact of the Holocaust. (Cancer cases starting in 1983 and ending in 2004 were the protocol.)
The research team concluded that exposure was associated with a statistically significant increased risk for cancer for all birth cohorts and both sexes.
According to Boker, one of the most compelling lessons learned from this study is that exposure to the Holocaust at a young age meant a particular susceptibility.
Carolyn Fang, director of the cancer prevention and control program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, addresses the concerns of the study In her role, she focuses on the link between stress and cancer links.
Fang concurred with Boker's article: "The finding that early exposure to extreme stress is strongly associated with increased risk of all-site cancer suggests that early-life events may lead to changes in biological programming that can contribute to cancer susceptibility"
The study conducted in Israel shows the strongest associations are between exposure to the Holocaust and the development of breast and colorectal cancer.
Fang said that she believes these findings are "confirmatory" as chronic inflammation is a risk factor for breast and colorectal cancer; other studies have shown that changes in a young person's environment are "proinflammatory."
These inflammatory factors can lead to the changes in biological functioning that Fang observed in her research.
In a related editorial, Stephen D. Hursting of the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, and Michele R. Forman of the department of epidemiology at the University of Texas-M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, examined Boker's results and those of several past studies linking calorie reduction and cancer risk.
They said that the data from Boker's study adds to the growing body of literature on the effects of severely restricted calorie intake, and psychosocial and physical hardships on cancer risk.
"From this unique cohort," according to Hursting and Forman, "we can learn lessons about adaptation to extreme hardships in early life, resilience during life, and cancer susceptibility later in life."
Fang went on to explain that "one of the potential messages of the study is that experiences that we may have as young people, if very severe, could have long-lasting effects on our health as adults."
She also pointed out that improvement in conditions later in life do not reverse the effects of earlier negative situations.
RACHEL LEVY LESSER
Jewish Exponent Feature