Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes pancreatic cancer develops in people who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

Precancerous conditions of the pancreas include mucinous cystic neoplasm (MCN) and intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMN). They aren’t cancer, but they can sometimes become pancreatic cancer if they aren’t treated. Some of the risk factors for pancreatic cancer may also cause these precancerous conditions. Find out more about precancerous conditions of the pancreas.

Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.

Research shows that there is no link between coffee and a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.

Known risk factors

There is convincing evidence that the following factors increase your risk for pancreatic cancer.

Tobacco

About 20%–30% of pancreatic cancers are related to smoking tobacco. The risk increases with the number of cigarettes and the number of years you smoke. The risk goes down as soon as you quit smoking. The longer you go without smoking after you quit, the lower the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Smoking cigars and pipes and using smokeless tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco and snuff, also increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.

Obesity

People who have obesity or a high body mass index (BMI) have a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.

Diabetes

Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes, but the reason for this connection is not fully understood. It may be that obesity is a risk for both diabetes and pancreatic cancer, or diabetes may be an early sign of pancreatic cancer.

Family history of pancreatic cancer

About 10%–20% of pancreatic cancers are hereditary or familial, which means they run in a family. Familial pancreatic cancer means that at least 2 first-degree relatives (father, mother, brother, sister or child) or any 3 family members have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The risk for pancreatic cancer increases with the number of family members who have the disease. In some families, the increased risk may be due to an inherited genetic condition. In other families, doctors don’t know the reason for the increased occurrence.

Certain genetic conditions

The following genetic conditions are linked with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.

Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) syndrome is an inherited condition caused by changes (mutations) to the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. People with HBOC syndrome have an increased risk of breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic and fallopian tube cancer.

Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome is an inherited condition that usually affects several members of a family. Family members with FAMMM develop melanoma skin cancer and a large number of atypical moles. The moles are usually different sizes and shades. FAMMM is caused by a mutation of p16 gene.

Peutz-Jeghers syndrome is an inherited syndrome that causes a very large number of polyps to develop in the gastrointestinal tract. It also causes dark spots on the lips and around and inside the mouth.

Lynch syndrome (also called hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, or HNPCC) is a rare inherited syndrome that may lead to colorectal cancer. People with type B Lynch syndrome have a higher risk of developing certain cancers, including pancreatic cancer.

Hereditary pancreatitis is a rare genetic condition that causes severe pancreatitis at a young age, often before a child is 10 years old. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas.

Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) and von Hippel-Lindau syndrome are genetic conditions. They may increase your risk of developing pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer (islet cell cancer). Find out more about pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (pNETs).

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is long-term inflammation of the pancreas. People with this condition have a higher risk for pancreatic cancer. Some studies also show a link between acute pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. Acute pancreatitis is sudden, short-term inflammation of the pancreas.

Eating red meat

Studies have shown that eating red meat increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Possible risk factors

The following factors have been linked with pancreatic cancer, but there is not enough evidence to show they are known risk factors. More research is needed to clarify the role of these factors for pancreatic cancer.

Alcohol

Some studies suggest that heavy alcohol use is linked with a higher risk for pancreatic cancer. This may be related to the fact that heavy alcohol use is a common cause of chronic pancreatitis.

Physical inactivity

Research suggests that people who are physically active on a regular basis may have a lower risk for pancreatic cancer.

Eating processed meat

Several studies show a link between processed meats and a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.

Occupational exposure to chemicals

Studies show that occupational exposure to some chemicals for more than 10 years increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. These chemicals include:

  • petroleum compounds and solvents
  • some dyes
  • chemicals for metal refining
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and chlorinated hydrocarbons

Helicobacter pylori

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a bacterium that grows in the inner lining of the stomach. Some studies show a link between H. pylori infection and a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV)

HBV is a viral infection of the liver. Some studies suggest that infection with HBV increases the risk for pancreatic cancer.

Gum disease

Researchers are studying possible connections between gum (periodontal) disease and certain health conditions. Some studies suggest that gum disease, or the bacteria linked with gum disease, is associated with a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.

Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that affects glands that make mucus and sweat, which affects how well the lungs and digestive tract function. People with cystic fibrosis may have a higher risk of developing certain cancers, including pancreatic cancer, if they live with the disease for a long time.

Cirrhosis of the liver

Cirrhosis is when scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue. The scar tissue blocks blood flow through the liver so it can’t function normally. Cirrhosis is caused by long-term damage to liver tissues, such as drinking too much alcohol or being infected with hepatitis B or C viruses. Research shows that cirrhosis increases the risk for liver cancer, but it may also increase the risk for pancreatic cancer.

Unknown risk factors

It isn’t known whether or not the following factors are linked with pancreatic cancer. It may be that researchers can’t show a definite link or that studies have had different results. More research is needed to see if the following are risk factors for pancreatic cancer:

  • surgery to remove the gallbladder (called cholecystectomy)
  • exposure to pesticides

Questions to ask your healthcare team

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.

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Reducing your risk for pancreatic cancer

Reducing your risk for pancreatic cancer includes avoiding tobacco and maintaining a healthy body weight. Learn more about reducing your risk.