Pancreatic Cancer Overview

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

We still do not know exactly what causes most cases of pancreatic cancer. But some risk factors have been linked to the disease. A risk factor is something that affects a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or race, can’t be changed.

Recent research has shown that some of these risk factors affect the DNA of cells in the pancreas, which can lead to abnormal cell growth and may cause tumors to form. DNA is the substance in each cell that carries our genes — the instructions for how our cells work.

But having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And some people who get the disease have few or no known risk factors.

Risk factors that can be changed

Tobacco use: The risk of getting cancer of the pancreas is about twice as high in smokers compared to those who never smoked. Cigar and pipe smoking also increase risk, as does the use of smokeless tobacco products.

Being overweight or obese: Overweight and obese people are more likely to get pancreatic cancer. Having extra weight around the waistline may be a risk factor even in people who are not very overweight.

Work exposure: Heavy exposure at work to certain pesticides, dyes, and chemicals may increase the risk of getting cancer of the pancreas.

Risk factors that can’t be changed

Age: The risk of this cancer goes up as people age. Almost all patients are older than 45, and about 2 in 3 are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time the cancer is found is 71.

Gender: Men are more likely to get this cancer than women. This may be due, at least in part, to higher tobacco use in men.

Race: African Americans are more likely to have this cancer than are whites.

Family history: Cancer of the pancreas seems to run in some families. In some of these families, the high risk is due to a gene change (see below). In other families, the gene causing the higher risk is not known.

Gene changes: Inherited gene changes (mutations) can be passed from parent to child. These changed genes may cause as many as 1 in 10 pancreatic cancers and can cause other problems, too. Some of the genes that cause these problems can be recognized by genetic testing.

Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with this disease. Most of the risk is found in people with type 2 diabetes. The reason for this is not known. In some patients, the cancer seems to have caused the diabetes (not the other way around).

Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas is linked with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Still, most people with this condition do not get pancreatic cancer. A small number of cases of chronic pancreatitis appear to be due to a gene mutation (defect). People with this form of chronic pancreatitis seem to have a high lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer.

Cirrhosis of the liver: Cirrhosis is a scarring of the liver. It happens in people with liver damage from things like hepatitis and heavy alcohol use. People with cirrhosis seem to have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Stomach problems: Having too much stomach acid or having bacteria called H. pylori in the stomach may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Factors with unclear effect on risk

Diet: Some studies have linked pancreatic cancer with eating a lot of red meat, pork, and processed meat (such as sausage and bacon). Others have found that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables may help lower the risk. But not all studies have found these links.

Not being active: Some research has suggested that lack of physical activity might increase pancreatic cancer risk. But not all studies have found this.

Coffee: Some older studies suggested that drinking coffee might increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, but more recent studies have not found this.

Alcohol: Some studies have shown a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer. This link is still not clear, but heavy alcohol use can lead to chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis, which are known to increase pancreatic cancer risk.

Last Medical Review: 08/01/2014
Last Revised: 02/01/2016