The death rate from cancer among Israeli Holocaust survivors is higher than among their contemporaries who immigrated before World War II, according to University of Haifa School of Public Health researchers who examined cancer incidence in Holocaust survivors in the most comprehensive study of its kind.
Survivors who were children during the Holocaust were found to be at a higher risk for cancer than those who were older during the war. In addition, survival of cancer among Holocaust survivors was slightly lower than among cancer patients who did not go through the Holocaust.
The study was conducted by Nani Vine Raviv under the guidance of Dr. Micah Brachne and Prof. Shai Linn of the University of Haifa and Irena Lifschitz of the Health Ministry's National Cancer Registry. Funded by the Israel Association, it was based on data of about two million Israelis of European origin.
The study findings led researchers to the conclusion that it was relatively unknown at the time that early discovery of cancer can save lives, increase the chance of recovery and avoid extended pain. It was very important, they stressed, that Holocaust survivors and their loved ones increase alertness by, among other things, performing early detection exams for breast and large intestine cancer - exams which are included in the basket of health services. The researchers also advised health care and home-care workers to be alert and encourage Holocaust survivors to take advantage of various available cancer prevention programs.
The researchers compared the incidence of cancer among those born between 1920 and 1945 and who came to Israel after the war (but before 1989) with those born between 1920 and 1939 and who came to Israel before the war (up to 1939). There are an estimated 238,600 Holocaust survivors living in Israel.
Data on cancer deaths came from the cancer registry.
The researchers found that the incidence of all cancers among male Holocaust survivors was 2.4 times more likely than among men who had immigrated to Israel before the war. Among women, in comparison, cancer was around 2.3 times more likely among Holocaust survivors.
Similar results were found with respect to specific cancers. Colon cancer was nine times more likely among men and 2.25 times more likely among women who remained in Europe during the war compared to those who immigrated to Israel before it. Female Holocaust survivors were 1.5 times more likely to have breast cancer than did women who came to Israel before WWII. The risk for women who were children during th war was twice as high compared to women who were adults during the war.
"As we know, life in the ghettos and the concentration camps in Europe during the time of the Holocaust was characterized mainly by serious crowding, general poverty, a difficult surrounding environment, ongoing hunger, general malnutrition, a lack of different kinds of food, cold, fatigue and mental stress," said Dr. Micah Bracha, director of the National Cancer Registry in the Health Ministry and a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa. "The difficult conditions... are likely to be among the main causes of the findings."
"The study findings suggest that those... who were children between 1940 and 1945 were at a higher risk for becoming sick with cancer," Raviv added.
"The exposure to hunger and the lack of nutrition during childhood growth and adolescence forces the body into a process of hastened growth, which exposes it to increased risk of development of cancer."
The researchers also found that the percentage of survival from cancer among Holocaust survivors was lower (by 5 percent to 13%) in comparison to the survival rate among those of European origin who immigrated before the war.