MONDAY, March 14 (HealthDay News) -- Heavy drinkers have an increased risk of dying from pancreatic cancer, new research shows.

In fact, people who never smoke, a known risk factor for the disease, but who have three or more drinks of hard liquor a day face a 36 percent higher risk of dying from pancreatic cancer, compared with nondrinkers, the study found.

"Overall, these findings add to the evidence that heavy alcohol intake is an independent risk factor for pancreatic cancer," said lead researcher Susan Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society.

"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," she said.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. Often, by the time symptoms appear the cancer is in an advanced stage and spreading rapidly. To make matters worse, pancreatic cancer is also hard to treat. The overall five-year survival rate from this cancer is less than 5 percent.

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, said this study confirms what people have suspected.

Survival chances with pancreatic cancer are not very good, he added. "It hasn't really budged in the past 30 years. By contrast, breast cancer five-year survival is now around 90 percent, the same thing with colorectal cancer," he noted.

Despite improvements in diagnosis and treatments for other cancers, "we haven't been able to budge the natural history of pancreatic cancer," Montero said.

Montero noted that pancreatic cancer is often found only when it is inoperable. In addition, pancreatic cancer is more resistant to chemotherapy, he said.

However, pancreatic cancer is not common, so the absolute risk of getting it is small, Montero added. "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," he said.

Smoking has long been cited as a risk factor for pancreatic cancer and now it appears that drinking liquor is also a significant player in development of the disease, the research indicated.

The report is published in the March 14 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

To come to these conclusions, the 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, the researchers noted.

Although a number of epidemiological studies have examined the association between alcohol and risk of pancreatic cancer, most were too small to tease out the effects of smoking from that of alcohol since people who drink alcohol are also more like to smoke, Gapstur said.

"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," she said.

Among people who had never smoked there was a 36 percent increased risk of death from pancreatic cancer for those who drank three or more servings of liquor a day compared with nondrinkers, Gapstur said.

"This association appeared to be only with liquor intake, and not with beer or wine intake," she noted. "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."

More information

For more on pancreatic cancer, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.