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Smoking and heavy drinking linked to earlier onset of pancreatic cancer

3 October 2012

A US study led by the University of Michigan Health System has found that pancreatic cancer patients who were heavy smokers or drinkers were diagnosed at an earlier than average age.

Published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, heavy smokers with pancreatic cancer were diagnosed around age 62 and heavy drinkers at age 61 – almost a decade earlier than the average age of 72.

Smoking is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer and alcohol has been shown to cause oxidative damage to the pancreas, which can ultimately lead to cancer developing.

The study of 811 pancreatic cancer patients from the international database Pancreatic Cancer Collaborative Registry does not prove the habits caused cancer.

The study does make a step toward understanding at what age screening for pancreatic cancer should begin – if widespread screening became available.

"As screening programs are developed, an understanding of how personal features influence the age of presentation will be important to optimize the timing of those screenings," says lead study author and gastroenterologist Dr Michelle Anderson, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System.

Currently there are no tests available to easily diagnose pancreatic cancer in people who do not have symptoms. In the study, heavy smokers were defined as those who had more than a pack per day, and heavy drinking was measured at about three average drinks per day.

Beer drinkers presented with pancreatic cancer earlier than those who drank other types of alcohol, such as wine or spirits, although when adjusted for the amount of alcohol consumed, the type of alcohol did not affect the age of presentation.

The good news is that the harmful effects of heavy drinking and smoking can be resolved. After 10 years, former smokers and drinkers who quit their habits faced no extra risk of earlier diagnosis.

The registry used for the study gathers information on patients with pancreatic cancer and those at high-risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

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