Causes and risk factors of pancreatic cancer

Doctors don’t know what causes pancreatic cancer, but some things can increase your risk of developing it (risk factors).

What are risk factors?

About 10,500 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK each year.

We do not know what causes pancreatic cancer. But things called risk factors can increase the chance of a person developing it. Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will definitely get pancreatic cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, you may still develop cancer of the pancreas.

If you are worried about pancreatic cancer and would like to talk to someone, we're here. You can:


The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. It mainly affects people of middle and older age. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are 65 or older. It is rare in people under 40.

Smoking and tobacco

Around 2 in 10 pancreatic cancers in the UK (22%) may be due to smoking cigarettes and cigars. People who chew tobacco or use other smokeless tobacco products, such as snuff, also have an increased risk. Stopping smoking will help reduce the risk.


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

Having a diet high in fat and sugar, but low in fresh fruit and vegetables, can also increase the risk.


Drinking a lot of alcohol regularly may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The risk is even higher for people who also 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.

Previous cancer

Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in people who have had cancer before. Studies are looking at what may cause this. It could be:

  • previous cancer treatment
  • a genetic link
  • lifestyle factors, including diet or smoking.

Family history

Most people with pancreatic cancer have no history of pancreatic cancer in their family. But about 1 in 10 pancreatic cancers (10%) may be linked to faulty genes that run in families. You may be at higher risk if you have any of these factors:

  • Two or more of your first-degree relatives have pancreatic cancer. First-degree relatives are your parents, siblings and children.
  • Some family members have the breast cancer gene BRCA2.
  • Some family members have the condition Lynch syndrome/HNPCC (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer).
  • Some family members have a large number of unusual moles (FAMMM – familial atypical multiple mole melanoma).
  • You have Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS). This causes multiple growths (polyps) in the stomach and bowel. It also causes dark spots on the face and hands.
  • Other conditions such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS) or ataxia telangiectasia. People with these conditions have a higher risk of getting different kinds of cancer.

If your family history includes any of the above, you can be referred to a specialist clinic. They can give you advice and assess you. They may offer you regular screening tests to try to find the cancer early if it develops. Doctors are still researching the best way to screen for pancreatic cancer. You may be offered screening as part of a cancer research trial.

Medical conditions

Some other conditions can increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.

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 higher with chronic pancreatitis because of a rare inherited condition called hereditary pancreatitis. Inherited conditions are passed down through family members.


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


Some infections have been linked to a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. But the evidence supporting these links is weak. Many people have these infections and do not develop pancreatic cancer.

Studies have shown there may be a link between pancreatic cancer and an infection of the liver called hepatitis B. Other research suggests there may be a link between pancreatic cancer and the bacteria found in tooth or gum disease.

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a common stomach infection that causes the stomach lining to become inflamed. There may be a link between H. pylori and a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, particularly in men. But the risk of stomach cancer is higher than the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Like all cancers, pancreatic cancer is not infectious. You cannot pass it on to other people.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our pancreatic cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    European Society for Medical Oncology, Cancer of the pancreas: ESMO clinical Practice Guidelines. Volume 26, Supplement 5, V56-V68, 1 September 2015. Available from: (accessed May 2021).

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Pancreatic cancer in adults: diagnosis and management. NICE guideline (NG85). Published 7 February 2018. Available at: (accessed May 2021).

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 05 January 2022
Next review: 05 January 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

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