March 3, 2009 -- Two alcoholic drinks a day could
boost your risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a new study that
reanalyzed the results of 14 previously published studies.
"We saw a 22% higher risk of pancreatic cancer in those who drank two or more alcoholic
beverages a day compared to nondrinkers," says study researcher Jeanine M.
Genkinger, PhD, an assistant professor of oncology at the Lombardi
Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. That
risk is termed ''modest'' by Genkinger and her co-researchers.
Pancreatic cancer, often deadly because it is difficult to diagnose early,
was found in nearly 38,000 people in the U.S. in 2008, according to the
American Cancer Society. An estimated 6% of U.S. cancer deaths in 2008 were
attributed to pancreatic cancer in both men and women.
Two recent high-profile patients include actor Patrick Swayze and Supreme
Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Research about alcohol intake as a risk factor for pancreatic cancer has
produced conflicting findings. Heavy alcohol intake has been linked to both
chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and type 2 diabetes, both associated with an increased
pancreatic cancer risk. But studies about alcohol intake haven't been
So, Genkinger and her colleagues pooled the results of the 14 previously
published research studies on alcohol intake and pancreatic cancer that
included nearly 863,000 men and women, with data available about their dietary
habits before the cancer diagnosis.
In the study sample, 2,187 men and women were diagnosed with pancreatic
First, Genkinger's team looked at men and women together, finding the 22%
increase in risk for two or more drinks a day. One drink went by the standard
definitions -- 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof
"When we looked at men and women separately, the women who drank two or more
a day had a 41% increased risk compared to nondrinkers," Genkinger says. "That
was statistically significant."
Men who drank two or more drinks a day had a 12% increased risk compared to
nondrinkers, which was not statistically significant. So they looked
When men drank more than three, the risk rose to nearly 60% compared to
nondrinkers, when looking at a specific kind of pancreatic cancer, an
adenocarcinoma. That was a significant association. The majority of pancreatic
cancers are adenocarcinomas.
The effect was the same regardless of type of alcohol, she says. "It doesn't
appear to be associated with a specific beverage; it is associated with total
Why alcohol boosts risk isn't known, but one of several theories is that a
by-product of alcohol metabolism acts as a co-carcinogen.
The researchers also found that the link between alcohol and pancreatic
cancer was stronger for those of normal weight than for obese or overweight participants. "Obesity is thought
to be strongly associated with pancreatic cancer," Genkinger says. So it could
be that in the study, the strong obesity connection masked the connection with
alcohol for the overweight participants, she says.
Smoking is also a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
The study was supported by the National Cancer Institute and is published in
the March issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.