If you know anything about pancreatic cancer, you know that it is often diagnosed later in life. The average age at which pancreatic cancer is found is 72, according to the American Cancer Society.
But what if you knew that two bad habits -- smoking and heavy drinking -- might be connected to the appearance of pancreatic cancer earlier in life?
Would you change your habits and lifestyle now?
In a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers found that heavy smokers received their pancreatic cancer diagnosis around age 62, with heavy drinkers getting the diagnosis at age 61, almost a decade earlier than usual.
The study was led by University of Michigan Health System gastroenterologist Michelle Anderson.
It’s already known that smoking is a strong risk factor for pancreatic cancer. As for alcohol, it’s been shown to cause oxidative damage to the pancreas, which possibly sets up the inflammation than can lead to cancer, according to a University of Michigan press release.
The study results do not prove that smoking and heavy drinking cause pancreatic cancer, only that these habits can lead to an earlier onset of this type of cancer.
Conclusions were based on information from 811 pancreatic cancer patients in an international database called the Pancreatic Cancer Collaborative Registry.
Anderson said an important outcome of the study is its possible influence on the timing of pancreatic cancer screenings, once widespread screenings are available.
For now, no tests are available to easily find pancreatic cancer in those who have no symptoms. Pancreatic tumors are almost impossible to find during a routine physical exam because the pancreas lies so deep inside the body.
By the time pancreatic cancer is diagnosed through imaging, blood tests, biopsy and other tests, the cancer is usually large and has spread to other organs.
According to the American Cancer Society, doctors are looking at endoscopic ultrasound as a potential early-screening tool for those who are at high risk for pancreatic cancer.
The ACS listed these possible signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer:
- Jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin
- Pain in the abdomen or middle of the back
- Weight loss, possibly combined with fatigue and loss of appetite
- Digestive problems such as nausea and vomiting after eating, as well as pale, bulky stools because of an inability to digest fatty foods
- Swollen gallbladder, sometimes detected through a physical exam or imaging studies
- Blood clots, although clots usually stem from other matters
- Fatty tissue changes, from the release of pancreatic enzymes that digest fat
- Diabetes, because of pancreatic cancer’s effect on blood sugar
In the UMHS study, heavy smokers were defined as those who had more than a pack a day, and heavy drinking was measured at more than 39 grams a day, or about three average drinks.
Beer drinkers presented with pancreatic cancer earlier than those who drank other types of alcohol, such as wine or hard liquor. But when researchers adjusted for the amount of alcohol consumed, the type of alcohol did not affect the age of diagnosis.
In encouraging news for those who have quit smoking and drinking heavily, the study found that after 10 years, those individuals faced no extra risk for earlier diagnosis.
“Smoking, heavy drinking linked to earlier onset of pancreatic cancer.” University of Michigan Health System press release. Web. 15 October 2012.
“Pancreatic Cancer Overview.” American Cancer Society. Web. 15 October 2012.
Reviewed October 16, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith