What Are Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer?
A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors, like smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight can be changed by the individual. Others, like age or family history, can’t be changed.
Having a risk factor, or even many does not mean that you will get cancer. Some people who get cancer may have few or no known risk factors. This is what makes cancer of any kind so unpredictable.
Risk Factors That You Can Control
Smoking & Tobacco Usage
Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Using tobacco increases your risk to 2X as high compared to people 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.
The risk of pancreatic cancer starts to drop once a person stops smoking.
Obesity & Weight Problems
Being very overweight (obese) is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Obese people are 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
Alcohol & Diet
Some studies have shown a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer. Heavy alcohol use can lead to chronic pancreatitis, which is known to increase pancreatic cancer risk.
Diets high in red and processed meats and saturated fats may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Proper diet is an essential part of managing diabetes which is an early warning sign for pancreatic cancer.
Workplace Chemical Exposure
Heavy exposure at work to certain chemicals used in the dry cleaning and metalworking industries may raise a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer.
Lack of Physical Activity
Some research has suggested that lack of physical activity might increase pancreatic cancer risk. Adding daily movement and activity may help reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer.
Risk Factors that Can't Be Controlled
The risk of developing pancreatic cancer goes up as people age. The majority of pancreatic cancer patients are older than 45. About two-thirds are at least 65 years old. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.
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).
African Americans have an elevated risk to develop pancreatic cancer than other races. 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.
A Family History of Pancreatic Cancer
Although family history is a risk factor, many people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer do not have a family history of it. If you do have a family history it is important to tell your doctor and be aware of risk factors and symptoms.
Inherited genetic syndromes.
Inherited gene changes (mutations) can be passed from parent to child. People with a strong family history meaning an immediate family member like a brother or parent that has been diagnosed are at high risk. This family history risk also includes people with three or more close relatives such as aunts, uncles, or grandparents that have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
People at higher genetic risk should discuss early screening with their doctor, even if there are no symptoms present.
Such gene changes may cause as many as 10% of pancreatic cancers. Sometimes these changes result in syndromes that include increased risks of other cancers.
Once these genes are revealed, you can work with your doctor to plan for additional tests if necessary.
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), is 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.
If you believe you have a strong family link to pancreatic cancer, think about asking your doctor to put you in touch with a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor can read test results, help you understand your risk level, and discuss what to do next.