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Risk factors for pancreatic cancer
A risk factor is anything (such as a behaviour, substance or condition) that increases the risk of developing cancer. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. Smoking tobacco is the most important risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. It usually occurs in people over the age of 65 years. The average age at diagnosis for pancreatic cancer is 71 years.
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.
*You may wonder about coffee and pancreatic cancer. There is significant evidence showing that there is no association between coffee and pancreatic cancer.
Known risk factors
There is convincing evidence that the following factors increase your risk for pancreatic cancer.
Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that can cause cancer. Scientists think that these chemicals enter the blood and damage the pancreas.
Smoking tobacco, particularly cigarettes, plays a role in the development of pancreatic cancers. 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.
Using smokeless tobacco products also increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. These products include chewing tobacco and snuff.
Obesity is a condition in which a person has an abnormally high, unhealthy amount of body fat. People who have a body mass index (BMI)body mass index (BMI)A measure that relates body weight to height (calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres squared). of 30 or more are considered obese. Studies show that people with a high BMI have a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes. The exact reason for this link is not known.
About 10%–20% of pancreatic cancers are hereditary or familial, which means they run in a family. People with a family history of pancreatic cancer have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. This risk increases if a first-degree relative (father, mother, brother, sister or child) has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The risk for pancreatic cancer also 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, the reason for the increased occurrence is unknown.
The following genetic conditions are linked with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer:
Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC) syndrome is caused by changes, or mutations, to the BRCA2 gene. BRCA2 gene mutations have been linked with an increased risk for breast, ovary, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers. BRCA2 is the most common genetic mutation in people with pancreatic cancer.
Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome is also called dysplastic nevus syndrome. It 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 cancers.
Occupational exposure to chemicals
Studies have shown 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
Chronic pancreatitis is long-term inflammation of the pancreas. People with this condition have a higher risk for pancreatic cancer. But most people with this condition never develop pancreatic cancer. The link between chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer seems to be strongest in smokers.
The following factors have been linked with pancreatic cancer, but there is not enough evidence to say they are known risk factors. Further study is needed to clarify the role of these factors for pancreatic cancer.
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.
Some studies show a link between H. pylori infection and a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. More research must be done to confirm this association.
Hepatitis B virus (HBV)
Some studies suggest that infection with HBV increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. More research must be done to confirm this link.
Exposure to pesticides
Some studies suggest that exposure to pesticides is associated with increased risk of pancreatic cancer. More research must be done to confirm this association.
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. Further study is needed to see if the following are risk factors for pancreatic cancer:
- physical activity
Questions to ask your healthcare team
To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.
Access to services in your community
The Canadian Cancer Society’s Community Services Locator helps cancer patients and their families find the services and programs they need in their community.