Pancreatic Cancer & Heredity

Dr. Tomislav Dragovich is chief of Medical Oncology and Hematology at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Question: Are there hereditary forms of pancreatic cancer, and is there a relationship between familial breast cancer and pancreatic cancer?

Answer: While certain non-hereditary factors, such as ulcers, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise, can contribute to pancreatic cancer risk, research on the causes of this type of cancer also shows a known connection in about 3 to 5 percent of all cases. Genetically driven conditions that can elevate risk of developing pancreatic cancer include hereditary pancreatitis; a type of skin cancer called familial atypical mole and melanoma syndrome (FAMM); a form of hereditary colorectal cancer; and the BRCA2 gene mutation originally tied to breast cancer.

Men and women who carry the BRCA2 mutation are more likely to develop breast cancer, but their risk for pancreatic cancer increases as well. BRCA2 is the most common known cause of familial pancreatic cancer, responsible for about 17 percent of hereditary cases of the disease. This particular gene mutation has shown sensitivity to certain forms of chemotherapy, and some treatments used for breast cancer patients who are BRCA2-positive may also be effective for those with pancreatic cancer.

Individuals with any personal or family history of pancreatic cancer or the genetic conditions tied to pancreatic cancer risk should visit a family physician for advice on appropriate screening procedures, if indicated; for lifestyle suggestions to reduce any additional risk for developing the disease; and to get a clear understanding of any emerging symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Should an individual experience any symptoms or unexplained changes in health, such as loss of appetite, weight loss, or upper abdominal pain, he or she should discuss those changes with a physician immediately. Because pancreatic cancer is most often diagnosed at an advanced stage, it is important to recognize some of the symptoms as early as possible when treatment can be most effective.