According to research conducted at Rush University Medical Center, opioid use may increase patients’ risk of developing pancreatic cancer. After research in January 2020 was first published in Plos One presenting evidence of this correlation, the researchers at Rush decided to investigate the issue further.

Since the rise of pancreatic cancer can be observed alongside the growth of the opioid epidemic in the United States, the researchers decided to assess this correlation from 1999 to 2016 using data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)'s Vital Statistics Cooperative Program.

With opioid death rate used as a marker of prescription and illicit opioid use, incidence of pancreatic cancer was assessed with data regarding lifestyle and behavioral factors that could be signs of pancreatic cancer risk.

The researchers found that both opioid use and pancreatic cancer diagnoses increased over time during the study period at both the national and state levels, after correcting for potential confounding factors. Additionally, a state’s death rate from opioids in a prior year was able to act as a significant predictor of the incidence of pancreatic cancer in the years following, as well as a predictor of estimates of the annual change in pancreatic cancer rates.

Following this observed correlation between opioid use and pancreatic cancer diagnoses, the researchers noted that the next step is to ascertain the role of opioids as a novel risk factor for pancreatic cancer. They explained that conducting large population-based studies or longitudinal datasets that can collect data on the long-term outcomes of opioid users could help to determine the possible mechanisms that may link opioid use to the development and/or progression of pancreatic cancer.

Additionally, the results of this study may have direct clinical relevance in relation to the importance of considering alternative pain control approaches in patients at greater risk of pancreatic cancer, according to the authors.

The link between opioid medication and pancreatic cancer. Chicago, IL: Rush University Medical Center; January 6, 2021. Accessed January 7, 2021.