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Tests Detect Pancreatic Cancer Earlier

Studies Show New Screening Techniques Could Improve Survival Rates

Blood Test Plus Ultrasound Detects Cancer

In a second study, researchers found that a combination of endoscopic ultrasound and a blood test for a tumor marker called CA19-9 helped to detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage in high-risk people.

So far, 272 people ages 50 to 80 with at least one first-degree relative who had the disease have been screened with the combination in the ongoing study.

In addition to family history, "age is another factor we can use to target people for screening," says researcher Richard Zubarik, MD, associate professor of medicine and chief of endoscopy at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vt. More than 90% of people who develop pancreatic cancer are over age 50, he tells WebMD.

CA 19-9 is often produced by pancreatic cancers, and its level is elevated in more than 90% of pancreatic cancer patients. It's typically used to gauge how well a treatment is working in those already diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The cost to detect one case of pancreatic cancer was just over $14,000, and the cost to detect precancerous abnormal cell growth was about $11,000.

"If we use this protocol, we can detect cancer at an early stage," Zubarik says.

Heavy Drinking, Smoking Raises Pancreatic Cancer Risk

Also at the meeting, researchers reported that heavy smokers and drinkers are at risk of developing the cancer much earlier than is typical.

The more tobacco and alcohol one consumes, the younger the age at which the disease tends to strike, and beer drinkers may be at particularly high risk, they say.

While previous studies have shown that smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol are risk factors for pancreatic cancer, "we didn't know if risk increased with dose," says Michelle A. Anderson, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

To find out, she and colleagues studied data on about 450 pancreatic cancer patients enrolled in an international patient registry.

The study showed that "the more a person smoked or drank, the younger the onset of the cancer, and that of the two, drinking has a worse effect," Anderson says.

Among the findings:

  • People who drank more than three drinks a day were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at an average age of 60 vs. 67.3 for teetotalers.
  • Heavy smokers developed the cancer about two years earlier than people who didn't smoke or drink: 64.9 years old vs. 66.7 years old. Heavy smokers were defined as people who smoked 21 or more pack-years in a lifetime, or the equivalent of at least one pack a day for 21 years.
  • Beer drinkers tended to develop pancreatic cancer at an earlier age than those who preferred wine or hard liquor. While the finding could have been due to chance, Anderson tells WebMD that she believes that the link will hold up when larger numbers of people are studied.
  • The median age of onset for patients who drank only beer was 62.2 compared with 68.2 for those drinking other types of alcohol.

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