Is pancreatitis a risk factor for pancreatic cancer?

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We do not know exactly why pancreatitis is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. However, research does shown that there is an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer if you have chronic pancreatitis. Therefore, it is something to be aware of.

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is an inflammation (swelling and soreness) of the pancreas whereas pancreatic cancer is a tumour in the pancreas. There are two main types of pancreatitis: acute (short term) and chronic (long term).

Chronic pancreatitis is believed to be a risk factor for pancreatic cancer and is a long-term, irreversible inflammation of the pancreas. It causes severe pain in the centre of your tummy and can cause malabsorption. Diabetes can sometimes occur if the insulin-producing cells become damaged. 

A diagram to show the difference in a healthy and unhealthy pancreas for - is there a link between pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

What causes chronic pancreatitis?

The most common cause of chronic pancreatitis is drinking large volumes of alcohol over a long period of time. This is because large consumption of alcohol can cause repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis, which leads to increased damage to the pancreas.

Other less common causes include smoking, injury to the pancreas and gallstones.

Read more about the causes of chronic pancreatitis here. 

Rarely, chronic pancreatitis can develop in people (usually amongst young people between 5 and 26 years old) who have an inherited faulty gene for correctly switching off the pancreatic digestive enzymes where and when they are not needed. This is called hereditary pancreatitis.

The link between pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer

A study showed that for those who had a diagnosis of pancreatitis at least two years prior to their pancreatic cancer diagnosis, they had three times the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. For those in the same group who were under the age of 65 that risk was four times.

In addition, those with Type 2 diabetes and chronic pancreatitis are ten times more likely to  have pancreatic cancer.

However, the research is still not completely clear on why there is a link but it is something to look out for and be aware of.

It is also important to be aware that pancreatic cancer tumours can block the narrow tube running in the middle of the pancreas (the pancreatic duct). This can trigger an attack of acute pancreatitis. This means that occasionally, the first sign that someone has pancreatic cancer is that they have an attack of acute pancreatitis. This possibly explains the observation that: people with a new diagnosis of pancreas cancer have had an attack of pancreatitis in the year or two prior to their diagnosis.

You can find out more about chronic pancreatitis on the NHS website, click here. 

For other pancreatic cancer risk factors, click here.