Risk factors of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic Cancer Action
Patient Information Booklets

What is Pancreatic cancer and how is it diagnosed?

This booklet for patients and carers describes pancreatic cancer, its causes and symptoms. It gives detailed information on the diagnostic tests used and the stages of pancreatic cancer. It includes a section on what to ask your doctor, where to go for further information and a glossary to explain many of the terms used.

The causes of pancreatic cancer are unknown, and most cases occur unexpectedly. However, there are some things that make developing pancreatic cancer more likely. Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is known as a risk factor.

Having any one of the risk factors listed below does not mean that you are going to get pancreatic cancer. Instead, here is a guide as to what research has shown can increase the chances. If you are concerned about any of the risks or you need more advice on how to reduce your personal risk, try talking to your GP.

Some risk factors cannot be changed. There is nothing that you can do to avoid them. These are known as non-modifiable risk factors and include things like age and genetics. Knowing about them is still useful, it means that you can be aware of your personal risk and look out for symptoms.

Other risk factors are avoidable or can be reduced through changes to your lifestyle or environment. These are known as modifiable risk factors. Examples of these are smoking and alcohol consumption.

What are the risk factors of pancreatic cancer?

  • Age

    Chance increases as you age.

  • Genetics

    Passed on through a parent or a sibling.

  • Smoking

    Cigarettes, pipes and chewing tobacco.

Age

The likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. The average age of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is 75, but younger people are still at risk.

As we age, our immune system declines in the sense that it becomes less efficient. This increases our risk of getting infections, diseases and cancers. The way our cells grow and divide is controlled by our genes (a gene is a short section of DNA). As we age, our DNA can become damaged, increasing our risk of cancer. Cells that help fight infection and regulate how they grow, reproduce and die, and also deteriorate as we age, increasing our risk of cancer.

Genetics

Most cases of pancreatic cancer are not inherited, however, these are some genetic conditions and family traits which can give you a higher chance of getting the disease. Genetics are non-modifiable: You cannot change the genes you inherit. However, you can manage your risk once you are aware of it.

Pancreatic cancer runs in some families and this is called familial pancreatic cancer. People with first degree relatives (mother, father, brother, sister) diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have an increased chance of developing pancreatic cancer themselves. The greater the number of first-degree relatives with pancreatic cancer, the greater this risk is.

Family history is a strong predictor of pancreatic cancer risk because it is suggestive of the presence of a genetic link to pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, there is currently no widely agreed reliable genetic test for pancreatic cancer. In many families, the genes that might cause pancreatic cancer are unknown. Research by EUROPAC (European Registry of Hereditary Pancreatitis and Familial Pancreatic Cancer) aims to identify gene changes that may increase risk in these families. This may be a way to get involved and check your family’s genes.

Smoking

The proportion of adults aged 16-years and above who said they smoked cigarettes in Great Britain was 14.5% in 2020.

Research has considered smoking to be the greatest, modifiable risk factor for pancreatic cancer. This is partly due to the carcinogenic compounds in cigarettes: These are the compounds that cause cancer. These compounds either damage DNA (directly or indirectly), which causes mutations in cells or by changing how cells reproduce and die. When cells grow and multiply beyond control, tumours develop.

Those who smoke are at a greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer than those who have never smoked. However, this risk can be decreased by quitting smoking, and after 20-years, the risk could equal that of someone who has never smoked.

Second-hand smoke (the inhalation of smoke) has also been found to cause pancreatic cancer. Children and unborn babies exposed to tobacco from people who smoke frequently may have an increased likelihood of the disease in adulthood.

Stopping smoking is challenging. SMOKEFREE NHS provides free, accurate evidence-based information and professional assistance to help support the immediate and long-term needs of people trying to quit smoking.

Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Around 24% of adults in England and Scotland regularly drink at levels that increase their risk of ill health.

Alcohol is a known carcinogen, but the relationship between alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer remains relatively unclear. Some studies have shown a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer. However, there appears to be a greater link between alcohol consumption and pancreatitis, which is also a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Therefore, pancreatitis may explain the link between alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer. However, research has also indicated that the volume of alcohol consumption would need to be extreme for it to be an independent risk of pancreatic cancer.

The NHS website has more information about recommended units of alcohol consumption and advice on how to minimise your alcohol intake.

Obesity

28% of adults in England are obese and a further 36% are overweight.

Obesity has been found to increase the risk in approximately 12% of all pancreatic cancers. Some large population studies suggest that the risk due to obesity may be much higher. The risk is also higher the more weight you gain and the longer you are overweight for. Research has suggested that the risk is increased through possible mechanisms, such as inflammation of the pancreas and insulin resistance.

If you are overweight and do not have pancreatic cancer, the NHS website has some tips and advice on how to lose weight. Weight loss is a protective factor in that the more you lose, the lower your risk of developing pancreatic cancer can be.

Pancreatic Disorders

The pancreas is vital for digesting food and managing your body’s use of sugar for energy after digestion. Diabetes and pancreatitis are classed as pancreatic disorders and serve as independent risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer.

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Information Product № PCA0144v1 Published 15/10/2019
Last Updated 12/07/2022 Next Review Due 15/10/2022