Pancreatic Cancer Awareness

Risk Factors

No one knows the exact causes of pancreatic cancer. Doctors can seldom explain why one person gets pancreatic cancer and another does not. However, it is clear that this disease is not contagious. No one can "catch" cancer from another person.

Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop pancreatic cancer. A risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease.

Studies have found the following risk factors:

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Almost all patients are older than 45 years. Nearly 90% are older than 55 years and more than 70% are older than 65. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 72.

Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than are women. This may be due, at least in part, to increased tobacco use in men. The difference in pancreatic cancer risk was more pronounced in the past (when tobacco use was much more common among men than women), but the gap has closed in recent years.

African Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than whites. The reasons for this are not clear, but it may be due in part to higher rates of smoking and diabetes in men and being overweight in women.

Cigarette smoking:
The risk of getting pancreatic cancer is 2 to 3 times higher among smokers. Scientists think this may be due to cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke that enter the blood and damage the pancreas.

Exocrine pancreatic cancer is more common in people with this disease. The reason for this link is not known. Most of the risk is found in people with type 2 diabetes.

Obesity and physical activity:
Very overweight (obese) people are more likely to develop exocrine pancreatic cancer, as are people who don't get much physical activity. Exercise lowers the risk of this cancer.

Chronic pancreatitis:
Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas. This condition is linked with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, but most patients with pancreatitis never develop pancreatic cancer. The link between chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer is strongest in smokers.

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

Occupational exposure:
Heavy exposure at work to certain pesticides, dyes, and chemicals used in metal refining may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

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: "Genetic syndromes"). In other families, the gene causing the increased risk of pancreatic cancer is not known.

Genetic syndromes:
Inherited gene mutations are abnormal copies of certain genes that can be passed from parent to child. These abnormal genes may cause as many as 10% of pancreatic cancers and can cause other problems as well. Examples of the genetic syndromes: Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, Familial melanoma, Familial pancreatitis, Hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.

Stomach problems:
Infection of the stomach with the ulcer-causing bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) may increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Some researchers believe that excess stomach acid may also increase the risk.

Some studies have found a link between pancreatic cancer and diets high in fat, or those that include a lot of red meat, pork, and processed meat (such as sausage and bacon). Others have found that diets high in fruits and vegetables may help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. But not all studies have found such links, and the exact role of diet in relation to pancreatic cancer is still under study.

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

Most studies have not found a link between alcohol use and pancreatic cancer. But heavy alcohol use can raise the risk of diabetes, liver cirrhosis, and chronic pancreatitis, which are risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

Source: American Cancer Society - What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?going to a new website.

back to top