An illustration of a malignant tumor of the pancreas.
An illustration of a malignant tumor of the pancreas.
An illustration of a malignant tumor of the pancreas.

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

Featured Expert:

Certain factors may increase your chances of developing pancreatic cancer. Risk factors that have been scientifically proven to have biological or genetic links to pancreatic cancer are cigarette smoking, chronic pancreatitis and family history. Dr. Richard Burkhart of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center reviews these risk factors and more.

Cigarette Smoking

Cigarette smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop pancreatic cancer. Using cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco products also increases your risk.

Chronic Pancreatitis

Scientific studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Gallstones are proven to also cause pancreatitis. When inflammation occurs, inflammatory cells secrete growth factors and toxins. After many years of chronic inflammation in the pancreas, these growth factors and toxins cause genetic damage and the uncontrolled growth of pancreatic cells. This can lead to pancreatic cancer. It is important to note that it takes many years of chronic pancreatitis to increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

It is not clear how much alcohol causes chronic pancreatitis. The American Cancer Society recommends that women avoid drinking more than one drink per day while men should drink no more than two drinks per day. However, chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer are associated with large amounts of alcohol consumed over an extended period of time.

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Physicians at the Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer Clinical Research and Patient Care

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Family History

While knowing your family history of disease is important, most pancreatic cancer patients do not have a family history. Scientists are still learning about the genes that are associated with inherited cancers.

Researchers have identified some possible connections between family relationships and increased cancer risk. For example, individuals with two or more first-degree relatives (parent, sibling or child) who have had pancreatic cancer have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Also, individuals with three or more close relatives (aunts, uncles or grandparents) are also at risk.

There are some inherited genes that are associated with an increased risk of multiple cancers. The American Cancer Society reports that up to 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are caused by inherited gene mutations that are passed from parent to child. For example, an inherited mutation in the BRCA2 gene increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. Individuals of Jewish descent are more prone to this mutation.

Screening Program for High-Risk Patients

The Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer has one of the largest studies to screen individuals with a family history of pancreatic cancer and is one of the world leaders in prevention of pancreatic cancer. Our physicians are leading an international consortium of medical centers in a collaborative, worldwide screening effort.

Other Risk Factors

Additional risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer include:

  • Age: Most cases of pancreatic cancer develop between the ages of 60 and 80 years.
  • Gender: Pancreatic cancer is more common in men than in women.
  • Race: African Americans have higher incidences of pancreatic cancer than whites, Asians or Hispanics.
  • Diabetes: Some studies have linked type 2 diabetes, which occurs when the hormone insulin does not work as well to process sugars in the body, to pancreatic cancer.
  • Pancreatic cystic tumors: Pancreatic cysts (also called intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms) may become precancerous or cancerous based on their location within the pancreas.
  • Diet: Eating an excessive amount of red and processed meats may increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In addition, a few studies have suggested a link between soft drinks and pancreatic cancer, but much more research is needed to understand and confirm this link. Most health experts recommend not drinking too many high-calorie soft drinks to promote a healthy lifestyle and avoid many diseases, including obesity and diabetes.
  • Industrial chemical exposure: Excessive exposure to dry-cleaning and metalworking chemicals may increase pancreatic cancer risk.

What Causes Cancer? Cancer Mutations and Random DNA Copying Errors

Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center scientists report data from a new study providing evidence that random DNA copying “mistakes” account for nearly two-thirds of the mutations that cause cancer. The scientists also explain how this relates to pancreatic cancer.

More on Root Causes of Cancer

Cancer is a complex and multifaceted disease. While there are many known risk factors for specific types of cancer, the root causes of cancer, in general, can be attributed to genetic mutations and random errors in the DNA replication process. Understanding these mechanisms can shed light on why cancer develops, including pancreatic cancer.

  • Genetic mutations: Genetic mutations play a significant role in the development of cancer. These mutations can occur due to various factors, such as exposure to carcinogens or radiation, or inherited genetic predispositions. In the context of pancreatic cancer, inherited mutations in certain genes, like BRCA2, can significantly increase the risk of developing the disease. These genetic mutations can interfere with the normal regulatory processes that control cell growth and division.
  • Random DNA copying errors: Every time a cell in the body divides, it must make a copy of its DNA to pass on to the new cells. This copying process is not perfect, and sometimes errors occur. These errors, often referred to as “DNA replication errors” or “mutations,” can accumulate over time. Pancreatic cancer, like many other cancers, can develop as a result of these accumulated errors.
  • Environmental factors and carcinogens: Certain environmental factors and exposures — such as exposure to tobacco smoke (as in cigarette smoking), excessive alcohol consumption (leading to chronic pancreatitis), and industrial chemicals — can introduce carcinogens into the body. These substances can directly damage DNA and increase the likelihood of mutations.
  • Inflammatory processes: Chronic inflammation, as seen in conditions like chronic pancreatitis, can create a microenvironment in which inflammatory cells secrete growth factors and toxins. Over time, this chronic inflammation can lead to genetic damage and uncontrolled cell growth, which is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
  • Aging: Age is a risk factor for many types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. As the body ages, the cumulative effect of DNA copying errors and exposure to environmental factors can increase the risk of genetic mutations and the development of cancer.

It’s important to note that while these factors contribute to the development of cancer, not everyone exposed to these risk factors will develop cancer, and not all cancer cases can be attributed to these factors. The exact combination of genetic mutations and environmental factors that lead to cancer can vary greatly from person to person.

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