Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

While there have been some medications in the past that are strongly associated with the development of pancreatic cancer (like Januvia), the precise causes of pancreatic cancer have not yet been determined. Research indicates that certain risk factors may be associated with an increased probability of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Age: The risk of pancreatic cancer increases sharply after 50 years of age. At the time of diagnosis, most patients are between 60 and 80 years of age.
  • Race: African-Americans are more likely to have pancreatic cancer than other ethnic groups.
  • Smoking: The risk of pancreatic cancer is higher among smokers.
  • Family history: Pancreatic cancer seems to run in some families. The exact genes responsible have not been fully identified, but changes in DNA that increase a person's risk for other types of cancer may also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity: People with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30 are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Implementing a healthy diet and exercise can help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: This long-term inflammation of the pancreas is linked with a slightly higher risk of pancreas cancer. Chronic pancreatitis may be difficult to diagnose, but most people have symptoms, including abdominal pain.
  • Sudden onset diabetes: Diabetes can be both a risk factor and an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. The exact relationship between diabetes and pancreatic cancer is being studied but may be caused by high concentrations of insulin or other hormones. In diabetics, a sudden change in blood sugar control may also be a risk factor.
  • Alcohol: Studies have shown a link between pancreatic cancer and heavy alcohol use. Heavy alcohol use can lead to conditions like chronic pancreatitis, which is known to increase pancreatic cancer risk.

How to Reduce Risk

There is no proven way to prevent pancreatic cancer, especially since some risk factors, like age, gender, race, and family history can’t be controlled. There are some steps you can take that might lower your risk:

  • Stop smoking: Smoking is the most important risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Quitting smoking helps lower your risk.
  • Limit alcohol use: Some studies have found that heavy alcohol use is tied to pancreatic cancer. Although still not proven, heavy alcohol use can lead to chronic pancreatitis, which has been linked to an increase in pancreatic cancer risk.
  • Diet and exercise: Obesity is a risk factor but getting to and staying at a healthy weight can help lower your risk for pancreatic cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant-based foods to help you get to and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Limiting exposure to certain chemicals: Avoiding workplace exposure to certain chemicals can reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer.