Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer

It is admirable that former President Jimmy Carter is calling attention to the need for more research on pancreatic cancer in televised Public Service Announcements sponsored by the Lustgarten Foundation, an organization dedicated to prevention and treatment of pancreatic cancer. Carter has a personal interest in this deadly ailment, as his brother, sister and mother all succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

Unfortunately, the TV spots featuring Carter leave one with the incorrect impression that we know little about what causes the disease. While there apparently is a genetic component to pancreatic cancer leaving certain families at risk, what was not communicated in the Carter/Lustgarten ad is the reality that cigarette smoking is by far the leading controllable risk factor associated with the development of this form of cancer.

About 27,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with pancreatic cancer — and approximately the same number die annually from it. This type of malignancy is one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

Smokers are considered to be at twice the risk of nonsmokers, and the heaviest smokers at three times this risk (the Lustgarten Foundation Web site acknowledges this fact). Indeed, epidemiologists now estimate that 30 percent of the cases of pancreatic cancer can be causally linked to smoking (Individuals with cystic fibrosis or pancreatitis associated with heavy alcohol ingestion, are also at increased risk).

Interestingly, despite his family history, Carter has to date avoided pancreatic cancer — and he has never smoked. However, his sister, Ruth, brother, Billy, and mother, Lillian, were all cigarette smokers.

The tobacco industry is quick to argue that smokers are fully responsible for the health consequences of smoking — and “know all the risks.” But how many consumers are aware that smoking is a highly significant cause of pancreatic cancer and that this condition is almost always fatal?

If public service ads such as the one President Carter has done continue to communicate the message that the risks are largely unknown, we will miss an opportunity to give Americans the information they need to modify their lifestyle to reduce the risk of this deadly disease.

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