Some research shows a link between heavy alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol may also lead to chronic pancreatitis, which increases pancreatic cancer risk.

Pancreatic cancer develops in the pancreas, the organ that produces enzymes to aid digestion. Symptoms may appear only in the later stages of the disease, and this tends to delay diagnosis and treatment. Pancreatic cancer occurs mainly in people who frequently consume alcohol and those who also smoke cigarettes.

In this article, we look at the effects of alcohol on the pancreas and whether alcohol causes pancreatic cancer. We also look at pancreatic cancer’s symptoms, risk factors, and potential treatment options.

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Research indicates that there may be a link between alcohol use and pancreatic cancer.

Chronic alcohol use is one of the most common causes of acute pancreatitis, a condition that causes sudden inflammation of the pancreas that lasts for a short time.

According to a 2016 meta-analysis, liquor consumption may increase people’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that people who stayed in a hospital to receive treatment for acute pancreatitis were more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than the general population.

Also, the combination of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking may increase the risk of cancer in the pancreas.

According to the National Library of Medicine, long-term alcohol use accounts for most cases of chronic pancreatitis.

Alcohol use leads to early activation of digestive enzymes, causing the pancreas to digest itself and increasing the risk of inflammation.

Alcohol-related pancreatitis may block the pancreatic duct, and stones may form.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) mentions the following pancreatic cancer risk factors that a person may be able to modify:

  • Smoking: People who smoke have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who do not smoke. Cigarettes contain compounds that damage the DNA and cause the cells to multiply more quickly, which may lead to cancer. Children who inhale tobacco smoke may also be at risk of developing cancer later in life.
  • Obesity: According to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer is more likely to develop in people with obesity. The ACS considers a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes: Up to 80% of people with pancreatic cancer have type 2 diabetes.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: This is long-term pancreatic inflammation that often develops in people who smoke and use excessive amounts of alcohol. It increases pancreatic cancer risk. However, follow-up visits with healthcare professionals after a chronic pancreatitis diagnosis may help lower cancer risk.

Some factors a person cannot change may lead to pancreatic cancer, such as:

  • Age: Pancreatic cancer occurs mostly in people older than 45.
  • Family history: Pancreatic cancer occurs more frequently in people with family members who have had the disease.
  • Sex: Pancreatic cancer is more common in males than in females.

Pancreatic cancer does not always cause symptoms. Sometimes, people may experience fatigue, weight loss, and jaundice.

Doctors associate the following gastrointestinal symptoms with pancreatic cancer:

  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • bloating
  • back pain that tends to worsen after eating or when lying down

These symptoms may be similar to those of other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. A healthcare professional will assess a person and rule out other conditions to reach a diagnosis.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer arise over time, so people should seek medical care if they have jaundice or other symptoms that cause them concern.

If a person’s symptoms persist for 4 weeks, they should consult a doctor again.

The treatment doctors recommend for pancreatic cancer will depend on an individual’s age, cancer stage, and personal choice.

Surgery

Surgery may help remove cancer cells, relieve a person’s symptoms, and prevent complications such as an intestinal blockage.

Oncologists may perform the following types of procedures:

  • Whipple procedure: This is the first surgical treatment for pancreatic cancer. It involves removing the pancreas head, part of the small intestine and bile duct, and the gallbladder. The surgery may take about 6 hours.
  • Distal pancreatectomy: This may be an option if the cancer is in the tail and body of the pancreas, as a surgeon removes those parts and the spleen. People may be more prone to infections after removal of the spleen, so they may require vaccinations before surgery.
  • Total pancreatectomy: This is the removal the entire pancreas, gallbladder, and spleen. People can live without the pancreas, but they may be more likely to develop diabetes because their body may not be able to regulate blood sugar levels.

Postsurgical complications, such as bleeding, infections, and pancreatic fistulas, may arise.

Pain medications

Pain is a possible symptom of pancreatic cancer.

A person may take pain medications regularly. It is more effective to take pain relievers around the clock than to take them only when pain arises.

Chemotherapy

Individuals may receive chemotherapy to help shrink tumors before surgery or to remove any remaining cancer cells after surgery.

Chemotherapy may be effective if cancer has spread to other organs or if doctors cannot treat it with surgery.

Pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate because healthcare professionals often diagnose it at a late stage. People do not typically develop symptoms right away. By the time people have symptoms, the cancer may have reached an advanced stage and spread to other areas.

It is impossible to check for tumors during routine exams, so medical professionals may perform a biopsy and imaging tests to determine whether an individual has cancer.

Only 5–10% of people live 5 years after receiving a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. This is because many people receive a diagnosis in stage 4, when the disease has already spread.

Alcohol consumption may lower the survival rate in people receiving cancer treatment.

Drinking alcohol may worsen treatment side effects, and a person may be more likely to experience dehydration, mouth sores, and nausea.

Pancreatic cancer tends to occur more often in people who smoke and drink alcohol regularly.

Possible symptoms include unexplained weight loss, jaundice, and bloating. These symptoms may not appear until the cancer has reached an advanced stage, which is why pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate.

Individuals with pancreatic cancer may undergo surgery or chemotherapy to remove the tumor. They should avoid alcohol while receiving treatment, as it can worsen side effects.