Pancreatic Cancer: Risk Factors

Over 46,000 men and women in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma every year, this is the 12th most common cancer representing only 2.8 percent of new cancer diagnoses. However, pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in the nation. The number of cases is in the United States and Europe is growing relative to the rate of other common cancers, for reasons that are unknown. Researchers suspect that the rise in the rates of pancreatic cancer may be linked to obesity and environmental toxins and the lack of screening tests that may detect early tumors.
Because people with pancreatic cancer often have generalized symptoms, the disease is usually discovered once it has advanced and is difficult to cure.
Most patients are diagnosed later in life, between the ages of 60 and 80, and African-Americans are more likely to get this disease than other racial groups, worldwide. There is also a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer among those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

Risk factors may include:

  • Smoking About 20 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are thought to be related to cigarette smoking. People who smoke cigarettes are almost twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as people who do not smoke cigarettes. Additionally, the cancerous tumors that form as a result of cigarette smoking grow at an accelerated rate and develop about 10 years earlier than other tumors.
  • Diabetes Pancreatic cancer is twice as likely to occur in people who have diabetes. However, the relationship between diabetes and pancreatic cancer is still not completely understood. Patients often develop diabetes before pancreatic cancer is detected and their glucose intolerance may actually be caused by changes in the pancreas resulting from the cancer.
  • Pancreatitis is an acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis can strike people of any age but is typically diagnosed between age 35 and 45. It can be caused by hereditary (genetic) factors, malformation of pancreas ducts, trauma to the pancreas, or heavy alcohol use. Some people have inherited genetic mutations that lead to pancreatitis at an early age and also increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. For more information on pancreatitis, click here.
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases by two or three times if a person's mother, father, sibling, or child has had pancreatic cancer. The risk multiplies when a greater number of family members are affected. Several inherited gene mutations have been linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, including the genes responsible for breast and ovarian cancer and melanoma. To learn more about the specific genetic conditions that lead to an increased risk for pancreatic cancer, click here.
  • Diet A diet high in meat and fat has been linked to pancreatic cancer.
  • Height and Weight The body mass index (BMI) is a statistical measure calculated based on a person's height and weight. A person with a BMI above 25 is considered overweight and this can increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. People who are taller than average are also at increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer but the reason for this risk in not understood.
  • Occupational or environmental exposure to carcinogens, such as pesticides, dyes or gasoline-related chemicals.
  • Certain types of pancreatic cysts Many people are found to have cysts inside their pancreas and sometimes these cysts can progress to cancer. This depends on many factors such as the type of cyst, the location of the cyst, and the way it changes or grows over time. In the Pancreas Center we have a dedicated screening program for patients with pancreatic cysts led Dr. Beth Schrope.