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Mother's smoking increases daughter's pancreatic cancer risk

August 6, 2009 |  9:58 am

A woman who smokes during pregnancy and motherhood appears to boost her daughter's odds of developing pancreatic cancer, the deadly disease that will strike an estimated 21,420 women (and 21,050 men) this year.

Researchers from Harvard University and Imperial College London looked at pancreatic cancer rates in the Nurse's Health Study, one of the nation's oldest and largest studies of women and influences on their health. Although it's long been known that tobacco use is associated with higher rates of pancreatic cancer, researchers wanted to explore the effects of secondhand smoke on a person's risk of developing the disease. In the 24 years over which the women were followed, 384 of 86,673 women were diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer is often called "the silent killer" because its symptoms are unlikely to be felt until the disease is in an advanced stage.

The study, published in the August issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, found that for women whose mothers smoked around them when they were young, rates of pancreatic cancer were significantly higher. A child whose father smoked or who was exposed in adulthood to a smoking family member or co-worker, was not significantly more likely to develop the disease.

Less clear is whether a mother with a smoking habit passes on to her daughter a heightened biological propensity to develop pancreatic cancer or an increased likelihood of smoking. Female nurses who themselves never smoked cigarettes were only slightly more likely than those who did not develop pancreas cancer, even if their moms smoked. The difference was small enough that researchers said it could have been attributable to chance.

But researchers did not rule out the possibility that a fetus or a child's exposure to secondhand smoke might set in motion some biological process that puts that female child at risk. That would put pancreatic cancer in the company of many other negative health consequences for a child exposed to her mother's smoking habit, including low birthweight, greater incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases, higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

In short, if you smoke and are pregnant or have young children, quit -- for your sake and theirs. Here's a good place to find help.

-- Melissa Healy