Known Risk Factors

There are several factors that are widely recognized as contributing agents to the genetic mutations that potentially result in pancreatic cancer. It is important to remember, however, that simply because a person exhibits a risk factor of pancreatic cancer, or a number of them, that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to eventually be faced with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Tobacco use: Regular use of chewing tobacco, cigars, pipes, especially the habit of cigarette use is widely believed to double a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Smoking is associated with early age diagnoses of pancreatic cancer, and some scientists estimate that one in every four and a half cases of pancreatic cancer is directly attributable to smoking. It is the leading preventable cause of pancreatic cancer.

Age: The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age. Over 80% of pancreatic cancers manifest between the ages of 60 and 80.

Gender & Ethnicity: Studies in the United States have shown an increased likelihood for pancreatic cancer to arise in African American and Jewish populations. This is likely due to certain inherited familial histories. Furthermore, pancreatic cancer is 30% more likely to develop in men than women (though this margin is believed to be shrinking).

Weight & Diet: People who are obese run significantly greater chances of discovering pancreatic cancer than those who are not. Generally, the bodies of overweight individuals produce too much insulin, which can begin a process of mutating or harming the pancreas, potentially resulting in cancer. Similarly, individuals whose diets are too high in meats, cholesterol, fried food and nitrosamines also run such risks.

Diabetes: People with diabetes (especially adult onset diabetes and diabetes mellitus; sugar diabetes) have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Diabetes is a disease of the pancreatic cells that normally make insulin, and the disruption of this process can lead to other mutations in the pancreas, including cancer.

Pancreatic cancer researchers recommend that any person over fifty years of age who develops diabetes and has unexplained weight loss should be investigated and monitored for other pancreatic disease, if for no other reason than to rule out pancreatic cancer. Most people who develop diabetes late in life are overweight, so diabetes and weight loss together can be quite unusual.

However, it is again important to remember that diabetes, unlike pancreatic cancer is a fairly common disease. Even with the increased risk, the vast majority of people with diabetes will not develop cancer of the pancreas.

Chronic Pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas has been linked to cancer of the pancreas.

Alcohol: Almost 70% of chronic pancreatitis cases are due to long term heavy drinking. Chronic pancreatitis is a widely recognized risk factor for pancreatic cancer.

Hereditary & Genetic Factors: Oncologists and clinicians agree that at least 10% of all pancreatic cancers are inherited. This means that pancreatic cancer has a tendency to run in certain families.

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases two-fold for a person who has one first-degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister) with the disease. Having multiple affected members increases risk even more. The term Familial Pancreatic Cancer (FPC) is for families with two or more family members with pancreatic adenocarcinoma (the most common form of pancreatic cancer).

Having a number of inherited cancer syndromes increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. These include the breast cancer syndrome (BRCA2 and PALB2), familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM), Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer syndrome), and the Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.  

For more information about these syndromes please visit the Rolfe-supported initiative at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the National Familial Pancreas Tumor Registry.