The causes of pancreatic cancer are not fully understood. However, certain personal, environmental, health, and inherited risk factors have been identified that increase the chances of a person developing the disease.
Personal Risk Factors
- Age: The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases after age 50. Most patients are between the ages of 60 and 80 at the time of diagnosis.
- Ethnicity: There is higher incidence of pancreatic cancer in Ashkenazi Jews, probably due to common genetic mutations present in at least 1% of individuals of this background. African Americans are also more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than are Asians, Hispanics, and Caucasians. The reasons for this discrepancy are not known but may be related to differences in other risk factors and habits like diet and cigarette smoking frequency.
Environmental Risk Factors
- Cigarette Smoking: About 30% of pancreatic cancer cases are thought to be a direct result of cigarette smoking. People who smoke cigarettes are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as people who do not smoke cigarettes. Additionally, the cancerous tumors that form as a result of cigarette smoking grow at an accelerated rate and develop approximately 10 years earlier than tumors not related to smoking.
Health Risk Factors
- Chronic Pancreatitis: Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. People diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Chronic pancreatitis is a condition that can strike people of any age. It is typically diagnosed in people who are 35-45 years old. It can be due to a number of factors including hereditary (genetic) pancreatitis, malformation of pancreas ducts, trauma to pancreas, or excessive alcohol abuse for many years. For more information on pancreatitis, click here.
- Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer is two times more likely to occur in people who have diabetes than in people who do not have diabetes. However, the relationship between diabetes and pancreatic cancer is still not completely understood. It is not uncommon for individuals to develop diabetes before pancreatic cancer is detected and it may be that this glucose intolerance is actually caused by changes in the pancreas resulting from the cancer.
- Weight: The body mass index (BMI) is a statistical measure calculated based on a person's height and weight. A person with a BMI above 25 is considered overweight and this can increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Inherited Risk Factors
- Inherited Risk: Up to 15% of pancreatic cancer is related to a family history of the disease. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases by 2-3 times if a person's mother, father, sibling, or child had pancreatic cancer. The risk multiplies if a greater number of family members are affected. There are several inherited gene mutations that have been linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer including the genes responsible for breast and ovarian cancer, and melanoma. To learn more about the specific genetic conditions that lead to an increased risk for pancreatic cancer, click here.