What are risk factors?

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 people without any risk factors, may still develop cancer of the pancreas.

Age

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

Smoking and tobacco

About 3 in 10 pancreatic cancers in the UK (30%) may be due to smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. 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.

Diet

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.

We have more information about eating well.

Alcohol

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

There is more information about alcohol and drinking guidelines at drinkaware.co.uk

Body weight and physical activity

Some studies have found that being overweight or obese and 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 be causing this. It could be because of:

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:

  • You have two or more first-degree relatives that have pancreatic cancer. First-degree relatives are your parents, brothers, sisters 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 a condition called Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS). This causes multiple growths (polyps) in the stomach and bowel. It also causes dark spots on the skin on the face and hands.

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

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.

Infections

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 to tooth or gum disease. Researchers think a type of bacteria causes this.

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 onto 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 cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    British Society of Gastroenterology. Guidelines for the management of patients with pancreatic cancer peri-ampullary and ampullary carcinomas. 2005.

    European Society for Medial Oncology. Cancer of the pancreas: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2015. 26 (Supplement 5): v56 to v68.

    Fernandez-del Castillo. Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Jan 2018.

    Fernandez-del Castillo C, et al. Supportive care of the patient with locally advanced or metastatic exocrine pancreatic cancer. UpToDate online. Feb 2017. 

    Winter JM, et al. Cancer of the pancreas, DeVita Hellman and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 2016.


  • 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 Senior 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.