Increased Cancer Rates Found in Holocaust Survivors

Holocaust survivors had higher rates of lung and colorectal cancer, according to a recent study.
BY Brielle Urciuoli
PUBLISHED July 14, 2017

The harsh conditions that people endured during the Holocaust may be at the root of increased cancer risks found later in life, new research suggests.

The study, which examined more than 142,000 Holocaust survivors who received compensation by the Israeli government, found that survivors of the Holocaust had higher rates of lung and colorectal cancer.

Published in the journal Cancer, they study found that 22 percent of people in the compensated group were diagnosed with some kind of cancer, compared with only 16 percent of those who were not compensated.

“In both comparisons, we found overall higher rates of cancer in the exposed versus the non-exposed,” Siegal Sadetzki, M.D., M.P.H., Head, Cancer & Radiation Epidemiology Unit Gertner Institute, Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Israel, said in an interview with CURE. “Epidemiological studies cannot give you data on causality. We can only speculate.”

Researchers were not able to establish causality because they did not have information on the exact kinds of potential hazards people in each group were exposed to, Sadetzki said.

The study found the strongest correlation between male Holocaust survivors and colorectal or lung cancer. She inferred that a number of environmental factors contributed to this, such as smoking habits and exposure to harsh chemicals for those who developed lung cancer, and poor diet and lack of calories for those who went on to have colon cancer.

Researchers looked at four groups of survivors in Israel, all of whom had follow ups between 55 and 59 years from the war. The first group (Group A; 81,927 people) included people who applied for and were granted compensation under the 1957 “Victims of Nazi Persecution Act.” These people were recognized as “stateless refugees under the direct occupation of the Nazi Germany.” They likely faced being in a ghetto, a concentration camp or escaped by using a fake identity. In this group, 22 percent of individuals had cancer.

The next group (Group B; 46,491 people) were in a concentration or work camp for six or more months or were living in hiding and using a false identity for at least 18 months. Under the “Holocaust Survivors’ Benefits Act,” survivors  received compensation based on four criteria: receiving income maintenance; having been a persecuted individual; having lived in a hostile country and having lived under specific personal circumstances – such as a ghetto – during World War II. Twenty-one percent of individuals in Group B had cancer.

The third group was composed of disabled war veterans who served in the allied armies, partisans or Red Army between the years of 1939 and 1945, and had at least a 10 percent health disability per the Israeli government. The veteran group – 95 percent of whom were men –  had the highest percentage (27 percent) of cancer incidences.

The final group were people who applied for compensation that would fall under one of the three groups, but were denied. Ultimately, the researchers divided the individuals into two groups – compensated and not compensated.

“Of course everyone suffered, but we needed some kind of a monitor of the degree of suffering,” Sadetzki said. 

She said she was surprised to find an increase in breast or gynecologic cancers for those who were compensated – especially since these were some of the most common cancers reported among the group – versus those who were not compensated.

While this study was the largest and most comprehensive that looked at cancer risk among Holocaust survivors, Sadetzki said that she wishes a study like this – that is focused on the late-effects of mass genocide – never has to be conducted again.

“I truly hope we will never have to revisit these situations,” she said. “We are really talking about extreme situations, that I hope we never have to deal with it ever again.”

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