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Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

Causes | Lifestyle | General risks | Genetics

Each year, more than 55,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. No one knows if or when the disease will develop, but understanding the risk factors for pancreatic cancer may help you take measures to reduce the likelihood of getting the disease.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Cancer of the pancreas is caused when mutated cells grow out of control, forming a tumor. While the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known, certain risk factors are strongly linked to the disease, including tobacco smoking and obesity. Also, people with a hereditary cancer syndrome or specific genetic mutations have a higher risk of developing the disease.

Known risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

General risks
  • Age, with nearly 90 percent of all pancreatic cancers found in people aged 55 and older
  • Gender, with the cancer somewhat more common in men than women
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection

Smoking cigarettes: Almost one-third of all pancreatic cancers is linked to smoking cigarettes. Carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) found in tobacco products may damage the pancreas, and smoking may add to the risks associated with other conditions, like long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis). Likewise, the risk of diabetes and obesity may also be greater if an individual smokes.


About 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are thought to be related to genetic factors, meaning an inherited gene mutation is passed on from parents to their children. Although these genetic conditions do not directly cause pancreatic cancer, they may increase your risks for developing the disease.

The following genetic mutations are considered risk factors for pancreatic cancer:

  • Mutations in the gene PRSS1 (familial pancreatitis)
  • Mutations in the gene NF1 (neurofibromatosis, type 1)
  • Mutations in the gene BRCA2 (hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome)
  • Mutations in the gene p16 (familial melanoma)

Other inherited syndromes that may be linked to pancreatic cancer include:

  • Lynch Syndrome
  • Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome (PJS)
  • Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome (VHL)
  • MEN1 (multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1) syndrome: A rare genetic disorder that may be a risk factor for malignant islet cell tumors

Next topic: What are the symptoms for pancreatic cancer?

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