Smoking causes cancer. We know this. However, if you are a heavy drinker and actually pass on those tobacco smoke cravings that often come with a few cocktails, you still have a 36% higher risk of dying from cancer of the pancreas.

It is estimated that in 2010 more than 43,000 individuals in the United States have been diagnosed with this condition, and 36,800 have died from the disease. The prognosis is poor, with fewer than 5% of those diagnosed still alive five years after diagnosis.

This new research was headed up by Susan Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society:

“Overall, these findings add to the evidence that heavy alcohol intake is an independent risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, they underscore the importance of the American Cancer Society guideline for cancer prevention recommending that if you drink alcoholic beverages, limit consumption to no more than one drink per day if you are a woman or two drinks per day if you are a man.”

Even worse is the news that by the time symptoms appear, the cancer is in an advanced stage and spreading rapidly making it extremely difficult to treat. Pancreatic cancer is also hard to treat.

Pancreatic cancer expert Dr. Alberto J. Montero, an assistant professor of medicine at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine adds:

“It hasn’t really budged in the past 30 years. By contrast, breast cancer five-year survival is now around 90%, the same thing with colorectal cancer. We haven’t been able to budge the natural history of pancreatic cancer. If you’re a smoker, the chances of getting lung cancer are much higher than getting pancreatic cancer. In absolute terms, your risk of developing liver cancer and cirrhosis [from drinking] are going to be higher than pancreatic cancer.”

Researchers collected data on more than a million men and women who took part in the Cancer Prevention Study II. Over 24 years of follow-up, 6,847 of these people died from pancreatic cancer.

Gapstur continues:

“In this large, prospective study, we were able to examine the association between alcohol intake and pancreatic cancer mortality in never-smokers, and across range of daily intake. This association appeared to be only with liquor intake, and not with beer or wine intake. Reasons for the differences by beverage type are unclear, but might be due to a higher amount of alcohol actually consumed in a single drink of liquor compared to wine or beer.”

Treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of the cancer. The Whipple procedure, which Steve Jobs underwent as part of his treatment for this type of cancer, is the most common surgical treatment for cancers involving the head of the pancreas. This procedure involves removing the pancreatic head and the curve of the duodenum together (pancreato-duodenectomy), making a bypass for food from stomach to jejunum (gastro-jejunostomy) and attaching a loop of jejunum to the cystic duct to drain bile (cholecysto-jejunostomy). It can be performed only if the patient is likely to survive major surgery and if the cancer is localized without invading local structures or metastasizing. It can, therefore, be performed in only the minority of cases.

Pancreatic cancer has one of the highest fatality rates of all cancers, and is the fourth-highest cancer killer in the United States among both men and women. Although it accounts for only 2.5% of new cases, pancreatic cancer is responsible for 6% of cancer deaths each year.

Source: Archives of Internal Medicine

Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.