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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.

Anderson says that regardless of their choice of beverage, heavy drinkers and smokers may want to talk to their doctors about pancreatic cancer screening.

"Normally you wouldn't think about screening a 55-year-old with no family history. But if they're a heavy drinker or smoker, you may want to do it earlier," she says.

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