Risk factors and causes of pancreatic cancer

Doctors don’t know what causes pancreatic cancer, but there are things that can increase your risk of developing it (risk factors). These include:

  • Age – Pancreatic cancer mainly affects people in middle and older age.
  • Smoking and tobacco – About 3 in 10 pancreatic cancers in the UK (30%) may be due to smoking.
  • Diet – A diet high in red or processed meat, fat and sugar and low in fresh fruit and vegetables may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Alcohol – Regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Body weight and physical activity – Being very overweight (obese) and being physically inactive may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Medical conditions – Some medical conditions may be linked to, or increase the risk of, pancreatic cancer, including chronic pancreatitis, diabetes and some infections.
  • Previous cancer – Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in people who have had cancer before.
  • Family history – About 5–10 out of every 100 pancreatic cancers (5–10%) may be linked to faulty genes that can run in families.

Risk factors and causes

About 8,800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK each year. Doctors don’t know what causes this cancer, but there is ongoing research into this.

Things that can increase your risk of developing a disease are called risk factors. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:


Age

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. It mainly affects people in middle and older age and is rarer in younger people. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are 65 or older.


Smoking and tobacco

About 3 in 10 pancreatic cancers in the UK (30%) may be due to smoking. People who chew tobacco are also at an increased risk.


Diet

Eating large amounts of red or processed meat over time may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Processed meats include ham, sausages, bacon and burgers.

Regularly eating a diet that is high in fat and sugar and low in fresh fruit and vegetables may also increase the risk.


Alcohol

Drinking large amounts of alcohol regularly may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, especially in people who smoke.


Body weight and physical activity

Some studies have found that being very overweight (obese) and being physically inactive may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.


Medical conditions

Chronic pancreatitis

People who have a condition called chronic pancreatitis are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Chronic pancreatitis means the pancreas is inflamed, tender and swollen over a long period of time. The risk is highest for people who have chronic pancreatitis due to a rare inherited condition called hereditary pancreatitis.

Diabetes

Diabetes is linked to cancer of the pancreas. But it is not clear if diabetes causes the cancer to develop or if it’s an early symptom of the cancer. Diabetes is common and most people with diabetes will not develop pancreatic cancer.

Infections

Some infections have been linked to a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Studies have shown there may be a link to an infection of the liver called hepatitis B.

Other research suggests there may be a link between tooth or gum disease and an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. Researchers think this may be caused by a type of bacteria.

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a common stomach infection that causes inflammation and ulcers in the stomach lining. Over a long time, it can increase the risk of cancer developing. There may also be a link between stomach ulcers and the risk of pancreatic cancer, particularly in men.

But many people have ulcers and infections and do not develop cancer.


Previous cancer

Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in people who have had cancer before. Studies are looking at whether this is because of previous cancer treatment, a genetic link or lifestyle factors such as diet or smoking.


Family history

Most people with pancreatic cancer have no history of pancreatic cancer in their family. But about 5–10 out of every 100 pancreatic cancers (5–10%) may be linked to faulty genes that can run in families. You may have a higher risk if:

  • two or more people on the same side of your family have pancreatic cancer
  • family members have the breast cancer gene BRCA2
  • family members have the condition Lynch syndrome/HNPCC (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer)
  • family members have a large number of unusual moles (FAMMM – Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma)
  • you have a condition called Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS) which causes multiple growths (polyps) in the stomach and bowel and dark spots on the skin on the face and hands.

If your family history means you may be at a higher risk, you can be referred to a specialist clinic for advice and assessment. You may be offered regular screening tests to try to detect cancer of the pancreas early if it does develop. Doctors are still researching the best way to screen for pancreatic cancer, so screening may be offered as part of a research trial.

Like all cancers, pancreatic cancer isn’t infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.

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