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Holocaust survivors more at risk of developing cancer

Researchers studied over 150,000 people for more than 45 years.

A Jewish Memorial headstone at Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp Memorial
A Jewish Memorial headstone at Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp Memorial
Image: Robert B. Fishman/DPA/PA Images

A NEW STUDY indicates that survivors of the Holocaust have experienced a small but consistent increase in the risk of developing cancer.

Published in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings offer an example of how extreme population-level tragedies can have an impact on health.

Holocaust survivors were exposed to a variety of factors that have been linked with cancer.

Professor Siegal Sadetzki and her colleagues at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Israel wondered whether the starvation, overcrowding, infectious diseases and psychological stress that survivors endured might have contributed to the development of cancer in some individuals.

To investigate, the team studied 152,622 Holocaust survivors who were followed for more than 45 years. Two separate definitions of exposure were used. One definition was based on the individual’s entitlement for compensation according to a set of laws.

The other was based on the country of origin, using a classification of countries during the war into those that were directly governed by Nazi Germany and other non-occupied countries.

Types of cancer

Cancer was diagnosed in 22% of those who were granted compensation for suffering persecution during the war, versus 16% of those who were denied compensation.

Survivors who were granted compensation had a 6% higher risk of developing any type of cancer than those who were denied compensation, and they had a 12% increased risk for colorectal cancer and a 37% increased risk for lung cancer.

Those born in occupied countries had an 8% increased risk of developing any cancer than those born in non-occupied countries, as well as 8% and 12% increased risks of colorectal cancer and lung cancer, respectively. The investigators observed no elevated risks for breast cancer and gynecologic cancers among female survivors.

“The data emphasise the importance of learning about the combined effect of several exposures occurring intensely and contemporaneously on cancer risk, such as those that unfortunately occurred during World War II,” Prof Sadetzki said.

“Such inspection cannot be conducted by experimental studies and could only be evaluated by using observational epidemiological surveys.”

An editorial accompanying the research notes that the associations reported by Sadetzki and her colleagues between the extreme deprivation experienced by Holocaust survivors and cancer may also have parallels with other extreme population-level events, including in racial/ethnic minority groups who experience severe social deprivation over time.

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Órla Ryan

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