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 risk factors don’t tell us everything. 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 do not have any known risk factors.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

Age: The risk of this cancer goes up as people age. Almost all patients are older than 45, and almost 7 in 10 are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time the cancer is found is 71.

Gender: Men are 30% 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.

Smoking: The risk of getting cancer of the pancreas is at least twice as high in smokers compared to those who never smoked. Cigar and pipe smoking also increase risk. Quitting smoking helps lower risk – 10 years after quitting, former smokers have the same risk as those who never smoked. People who use smokeless tobacco are also more likely to get pancreatic cancer.

Obesity: Very overweight (obese) people are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

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: This is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas. It is linked with a slightly higher risk of pancreatic cancer, but 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 for getting 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 alcohol use. People with cirrhosis seem to have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

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

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 of pancreatic cancer is not known.

Gene changes: Inherited gene changes (mutations) are abnormal copies of certain genes that can be passed from parent to child. These changed genes may cause pancreatic cancers and can cause other problems, too. Some of the genes that cause these problems have been found by scientists and can be recognized by genetic testing.

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

Alcohol: Some studies have shown a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer.


Last Medical Review: 02/15/2013
Last Revised: 02/03/2014