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Holocaust survivors more at risk of developing cancer, Israeli study finds

This Monday, June 20, 2011 picture shows the identification tattoo on the arm of Holocaust survivor Zoltan Farkas at his home in Menlo Park, Calif. (FILE)
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
The study examined how the hardships of concentration camps contributed to development of various cancers

A forty-five year study encompassing 152,622 people has found that Holocaust survivors living in Israel have a consistently greater risk of developing all types of cancer, helping confirm a puzzle that has dogged researchers for years.

The study, led by Israeli researcher Prof. Siegal Sadetzki from the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, sought to discover how the starvation, overcrowding, infectious diseases and acute psychological stress faced by Holocaust survivors may have contributed to the development of various cancer types.

In order to test their hypothesis, they demarked two ways of measuring the exposure of victims: those who were granted compensation after World War II versus those who were not, and those who lived in countries occupied by Nazi Germany against survivors who lived in non-occupied nations during the same period.

The team found that those born in occupied countries had an eight per cent greater risk of contracting cancer than those who were not, including higher risks for colorectal and lung cancers.

The study, published in the journal CANCER, also found that 22% of those who were granted compensation following their experiences in the Holocaust were subsequently diagnosed with cancer, compared to only 16% of those whose claims for compensation were knocked back.

A higher cancer risk for men was also observed.

PHILIPPE HUGUEN (AFP/File)

The criteria for compensation were determined by the Israeli government in the years following the war, the report notes. Eligibility for compensation was typically granted to those who had spent time in a ghetto, transit or concentration camp or who had lived in a country that came under direct Nazi control.

Anti-Jewish legislation began as soon as Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Workers Party took power in 1933, with the measures culminating in the slaughter of around six million Jews.

Those who survived the camps were often emaciated from hunger, disease and physical and mental exhaustion.

The authors noted that previous studies have examined links between the unique ordeal of people who experienced the Holocaust to various illnesses, but the connection to cancer rates was largely unexplored.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the largest and most comprehensive observational study assessing cancer risk among Holocaust survivors based on individual data," the researchers conclude in the article, titled 'Cancer Risk Among Holocaust Survivors in Israel— A Nationwide Study'.

"In line with some other previous findings, the consistency of our results observed in both men and women and in the two different approaches supports the association between being a Holocaust survivor and an increased risk of developing colorectal and lung cancers."

“The data emphasize 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,” said Prof. Sadetzki, Head of the Cancer and Radiation Epidemiology Unit at Sheba's Gertner Institute.

In 2015 there were estimated to be 189,000 people defined as Holocaust survivors residing in Israel.

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