Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.

In some cases, there might be a factor that may decrease your risk of developing cancer or has an unclear effect. That is not considered a risk factor, but you may see them noted clearly on this page as well. 

Having a risk factor, or even many, does not mean that you will get cancer. And some people who get cancer may have few or no known risk factors.

Here are some of the risk factors known to increase your risk for pancreatic cancer.

Risk factors that can be changed

Tobacco use

Smoking is one of the most important risk factors for pancreatic cancer. The risk of getting pancreatic cancer is about twice as high among smokers compared to those who have never smoked. About 25% of pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by cigarette smoking. Cigar smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco products also increase the risk. However, the risk of pancreatic cancer starts to drop once a person stops smoking . See Can Pancreatic Cancer Be Prevented?

Being overweight

Being very overweight (obese) is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Obese people (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or more) are about 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

Carrying extra weight around the waistline may be a risk factor even in people who are not very overweight.

Diabetes

Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes. The reason for this is not known. Most of the risk is found in people with type 2 diabetes. This type of diabetes is increasing in children and adolescents as obesity in these age groups also rises. Type 2 diabetes in adults is also often related to being overweight or obese. It’s not clear if people with type 1 (juvenile) diabetes have a higher risk.

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis, a long-term inflammation of the pancreas, is linked with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.  Chronic pancreatitis is often seen with heavy alcohol use and smoking.  

Workplace exposure to certain chemicals

Heavy exposure at work to certain chemicals used in the dry cleaning and metal working industries may raise a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer.

Risk factors that can’t be changed

Age

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer goes up as people age. Almost all patients are older than 45. About two-thirds are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.

Gender

Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women. This may be due, at least in part, to higher tobacco use in men, which raises pancreatic cancer risk (see above).

Race

African Americans are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than whites. The reasons for this aren’t clear, but it may be due in part to having higher rates of some other risk factors for pancreatic cancer, such as diabetes, smoking , and being overweight.

Family history

Pancreatic cancer seems to run in some families. In some of these families, the high risk is due to an inherited syndrome (explained below). In other families, the gene causing the increased risk is not known. Although family history is a risk factor, most people who get pancreatic cancer do not have a family history of it.

Inherited genetic syndromes

Inherited gene changes (mutations) can be passed from parent to child. These gene changes may cause as many as 10% of pancreatic cancers. Sometimes these changes result in syndromes that include increased risks of other cancers (or other health problems). Examples of genetic syndromes that can cause pancreatic cancer include:

  • Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, caused by mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • Hereditary breast cancer, caused by mutations in the PALB2 gene
  • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, caused by mutations in the p16/CDKN2A gene and associated with skin and eye melanomas
  • Familial pancreatitis, usually caused by mutations in the PRSS1 gene
  • Lynch syndrome, also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), most often caused by a defect in the MLH1 or MSH2 genes
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, caused by defects in the STK11 gene. This syndrome is also linked with polyps in the digestive tract and several other cancers.

Changes in the genes that cause some of these syndromes can be found by genetic testing. For more information on genetic testing, see Can Pancreatic Cancer Be Found Early?

Chronic pancreatitis (due to a gene change)

Chronic pancreatitis is sometimes due to an inherited gene mutation. People with this inherited (familial) form of pancreatitis have a high lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer.

Factors with unclear effect on risk

Diet

Some studies have linked pancreatic cancer to diets that are high in red and processed meats (such as sausage and bacon) and low in fruits and vegetables. But not all studies have found such links, and this is still being studied.

Physical inactivity

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 have suggested that drinking coffee might increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, but more recent studies have not confirmed this.

Alcohol

Some studies have shown a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer. This link is still not certain, but heavy alcohol use can lead to conditions such as chronic pancreatitis, which is known to increase pancreatic cancer risk.

Infections

Some research suggests that infection of the stomach with the ulcer-causing bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) or infection with Hepatitis B may increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. More studies are needed.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: February 11, 2019 Last Revised: September 4, 2019

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