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Pancreatic Cancer: Risk Factors 

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Risk factors for a certain type of cancer might include smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer.

Things you should know about risk factors for cancer:

  • Risk factors can increase a person's risk, but they do not necessarily cause the disease.

  • Some people with risk factors never develop cancer. Other people can develop cancer and have few or no risk factors.

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there is ongoing research about risk factors for many types of cancer.

Some risk factors, such as family history, may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. Knowing the risk factors can help you make choices that might lower your risk. For example, if an unhealthy diet is a risk factor, you may choose to eat healthy foods. If excess weight is a risk factor, you may decide to try to lose weight.

Who is at risk for pancreatic cancer?

Anyone can get pancreatic cancer. But there are some factors that can increase your risk for pancreatic cancer, such as:

  • Older age. Your risk of pancreatic cancer goes up as you get older. Pancreatic cancer is rare before age 45. About 2 in 3 people are 65 or older when they are diagnosed.

  • Male gender. Men are more likely to get pancreatic cancer than women.

  • Race. African-Americans are slightly more likely to get pancreatic cancer than people of other races.

  • Tobacco use. The use of any type of tobacco (including chewing tobacco) increases your risk of this cancer.

  • Obesity. People who are overweight or obese have a higher risk.

  • Diabetes. People with long-term diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, appear to be at increased risk for this cancer.

  • Chronic pancreatitis. Long-term inflammation of the pancreas is linked with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.

  • Cirrhosis. Scarring of the liver increases your risk. This can result from liver damage due to hepatitis or heavy alcohol use.

  • Family history. People with family members who have had pancreatic cancer are at higher risk. Still, most people with pancreatic cancer do not have a family history of the disease.

  • Certain inherited genetic syndromes. Certain rare inherited syndromes increase the risk of this cancer. Examples include Lynch syndrome, hereditary pancreatitis, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome. They also include hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) syndrome and familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome. 

  • Helicobacter pylori infection. This is a type of bacteria that can infect your stomach and cause ulcers. It also seems to increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

  • Exposure to certain chemicals, especially in the workplace. People who are exposed to certain chemicals at work, such as dry cleaners, might have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Some other chemicals, such as benzene and certain pesticides or dyes, might also raise the risk.

Other factors might affect pancreatic cancer risk. These include eating an unhealthy diet, not being physically active, and heavy alcohol use. Research on these and other risk factors is in progress.

What are your risk factors?

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Ask what you can do about them. Some risk factors, such as your age, are not under your control. But there are some things you can do that might lower your risk:

  • Do not use any form of tobacco. If you do, try to quit.

  • Limit how much alcohol you drink.

  • Reach and keep a healthy weight. Eating a nutritious diet and staying active can help.

  • Avoid exposure to chemicals that might increase your risk.

Should you be screened for pancreatic cancer?

Screening is the process of looking for cancer in people who don’t have symptoms. Screening for pancreatic cancer in the general population is not recommended by any major medical organization in the U.S. at this time. But if you have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer, you might want to talk with your healthcare provider about screening. Or you can ask about genetic counseling and testing to help determine your risk. Some people at increased risk might benefit from screening.

If your healthcare provider thinks screening might be helpful, he or she may suggest an endoscopic ultrasound. This test uses a thin tube called an endoscope with a tiny ultrasound probe on the end. The tube is passed down your throat, through your stomach, and into the first part of your small intestine. Sound waves from the probe make pictures of your pancreas that your healthcare provider can see on a screen. If your healthcare provider sees a tumor, he or she can pass a small, hollow needle through the scope to take small samples of it. This is called a biopsy. Your healthcare provider can also do other tests to check if you have pancreatic cancer.

Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.