Risk factors and causes of pancreatic cancer

Doctors don’t know what causes pancreatic cancer, but some things 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.
  • 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.
  • Medical conditions – Some medical conditions may be linked to, or increase the risk of, pancreatic cancer, including chronic pancreatitis, diabetes and some infections.

Risk factors and causes

About 9,600 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.


Age

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

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.

An image of a clinical oncologist talking to a nurse

Watch our healthy eating and cancer video playlist

In these videos, learn more about the link between healthy eating and cancer, and ways to maintain the best possible diet during treatment.

Watch our healthy eating and cancer video playlist

In these videos, learn more about the link between healthy eating and cancer, and ways to maintain the best possible diet during treatment.


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.


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 be causing this. It could be because of:

  • 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:

  • 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 on to other people.

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