Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month: Smoking & Cancer Risk

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Take some time this month to learn about pancreatic cancer and how it affects the body, as well as risk factors and prevention. 

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen. It sits behind the stomach. Exocrine cells in the pancreas create enzymes. These enzymes help break down food. Endocrine cells in the pancreas produce hormones. These hormones help regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas grow out of control. Most pancreatic cancers develop from exocrine cells.

Out of all cancers, pancreatic cancer is less common. 3 percent of all cancers in the United States are pancreatic cancer. About 62,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States in 2022. However, pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly cancers. Nearly 50,000 people will die from pancreatic cancer in the United States in 2022. 

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown. However, there are certain factors that can increase one’s risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Smoking is one of the biggest preventable risk factors. Other risk factors include weight, diabetes, pancreatitis, age, family history, and inherited genetic syndromes. Most of these risk factors are difficult to change. However, the biggest factor people can control is to not smoke or to quit smoking. 

When many people think about smoking and tobacco’s relationship with cancer, their minds may go only to lung cancer. However, tobacco use is the leading cause of cancer. It is linked in some part to most cancers in all areas of the body. People who smoke are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared to people who do not smoke. Cigarette smoking specifically is linked to 25 percent of pancreatic cancers. Cigars and other tobacco products also increase risk. Pancreatic cancer risk decreases when people quit smoking.

A link between smoking and pancreatic cancer was first discovered in the 1960-70s after several studies were published. These studies used surveys and found that cigarette smoking was associated with a 70 percent increase in risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Trends in the 1920s-1970s also demonstrated this link. As smoking rates increased or decreased over time, so did pancreatic cancer cases and mortality rates in turn. 

More studies were carried out in the 1970s and 1980s. In one study, researchers followed 50,000 men for 16-50 years and recorded data about them. 126 men died of pancreatic cancer. Researchers compared the social and physical characteristics of these men to those who did not develop pancreatic cancer. They found that smoking was associated with increased pancreatic cancer incidence. 

Another study in 1989-1989 used interviews in 526 people with pancreatic cancer and 2,153 people without. The interviews captured information about smoking and types of cigarettes smoked. Researchers found that smokers had a 70 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer. They also found that as smoking duration (years smoked) increased, so did pancreatic cancer risk. The opposite was true for those who quit smoking; as years without smoking increased, risk of pancreatic cancer decreased. Those who had quit smoking for more than ten years had 30 percent lower risk than current smokers. 

Recent and ongoing studies have focused on precisely how smoking increases pancreatic risk, but much is still unknown. It is known that cigarettes contain carcinogens, or substances that cause cancer. Smoking can also lead to cell damage and disruption, and it increases the risk for pancreatitis, obesity, and diabetes, which are all risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Another research area is studies that focus on increasing understanding on smoking methods and cancer risk, age of onset, and progression, such as smoking duration and smoking intensity. For example, recent studies have found that smokers are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer at earlier ages. Researchers are also studying the best ways to help people quit smoking and reduce their cancer risk.