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Pancreatic cancer is a malignant tumor that develops in the pancreas, a vital organ located behind the stomach. The pancreas performs several essential bodily functions. For instance, it produces digestive enzymes to break down food and secretes insulin and glucagon to regulate blood sugar levels.

The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma. Also known as ductal carcinoma, adenocarcinoma occurs in the exocrine cells that line the pancreatic ducts, which transport digestive enzymes from the pancreas to the small intestine.

Nurse talks to patient about pancreatic cancer causes

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a highly complex condition, and its causes are not yet well understood. Through extensive research, scientists have determined that pancreatic tumors form when cells in the pancreas undergo harmful changes that affect their DNA (a molecule that encodes an organism’s genetic blueprint). DNA carries information that controls all aspects of cellular development and reproduction.

The DNA mutations that lead to pancreatic cancer cause cells in the pancreas to grow uncontrollably or survive beyond their normal lifespan. The resulting overabundance of abnormal cells then amass and form a tumor.

Researchers continue to study possible causes of the DNA changes that lead to pancreatic cancer. Some current theories focus on:

  • Persistent pancreatic inflammation – Because individuals who have chronic or hereditary pancreatitis or a history of alcoholism tend to have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, scientists believe long-term pancreatic inflammation may play a role in its development.
  • Environmental factors – DNA mutations can result from exposure to harmful substances, including radiation, tobacco smoke, benzene, cadmium and certain pesticides.
  • Random cellular events – Sometimes, pancreatic cells mutate and become cancerous for no apparent reason.

Is pancreatic cancer hereditary?

Scientists believe genetics play a role in the development of some pancreatic cancers. For instance, the risk increases with an inherited mutation in:

  • BReast CAncer gene 1 (BRCA1)
  • BReast CAncer gene 2 (BRCA2)
  • Partner and localizer of BRCA2 (PALB2)

In many cases, these gene mutations are associated with a family history of pancreatic, breast or ovarian cancer.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors

Although studies of the exact causes of pancreatic cancer remain inconclusive, researchers have identified several factors that can increase the risk.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors that can be controlled

Certain lifestyle choices and behaviors can increase the likelihood of developing of pancreatic cancer. These include:

  • Tobacco use – Heavy smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.
  • Alcohol use – Some studies have linked pancreatic cancer with excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. Heavy alcohol use can also lead to chronic pancreatitis, a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity – Obese individuals have a 20% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than their non-obese counterparts.
  • Excess abdominal fat - People who carry excess body weight around their midsection may have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer that is independent of the risk associated with general obesity.
  • Poor nutrition – Experts believe a diet high in red or processed meats may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, while a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors that cannot be controlled

Some unchangeable traits can also increase the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer. These include:

  • Age – As with many types of cancer, the risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most patients are diagnosed after age 60.
  • Chronic or hereditary pancreatitis – Pancreatitis can cause recurrent episodes of pancreatic inflammation, which is believed to contribute to the development of pancreatic cancer.
  • Long-standing diabetes – While new-onset diabetes may be a symptom of pancreatic cancer, long-standing diabetes is a risk factor.
  • Family history – Having a parent, sibling or child who has or had pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, familial melanoma or hereditary pancreatitis can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer prevention

Because some pancreatic cancer risk factors are lifestyle practices that can be changed, it is possible to reduce the risk through behavior modification strategies, such as:

  • Quitting tobacco use – For smokers, quitting is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer as well as many other cancers. The risk decreases commensurately with the amount of time an individual is smoke-free.
  • Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight – Obesity and excess body weight carried around the midsection are known risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Effective weight-loss methods include exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins and low in red and processed meats.
  • Abstaining from or limiting alcohol use – Heavy and prolonged consumption of alcoholic beverages can contribute to the risk of chronic pancreatitis, which in turn increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Managing diabetes – Those who are diagnosed with diabetes should work with their physician to manage their blood sugar levels, which can help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Seeking genetic counseling – Those who have a family history of cancer or a known genetic mutation associated with pancreatic cancer might consider genetic counseling, which can help them better understand their pancreatic cancer risk and learn about appropriate preventive measures.
  • Following occupational safety standards – Those who work in an occupation that involves exposure to potentially harmful substances should closely follow safety guidelines and use protective measures to minimize their exposure.
  • Seeing a physician for regular check-ups – While there is no screening test for pancreatic cancer that has proven effective enough for routine use in the general population, those who are at risk due to their family history or a genetic mutation may benefit from frequent monitoring.

It is important to note that while these strategies can help reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, they do not guarantee its prevention. Anyone who has concerns about their risk level or specific risk factors should see a healthcare provider for personalized guidance and recommendations.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about pancreatic cancer causes and risk factors

The following FAQs-related articles provide additional information about pancreatic cancer causes and risk factors:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

Designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Moffitt is a nationally recognized trailblazer in cancer research, and we have a robust portfolio of clinical trials. The multispecialty team in our acclaimed Gastrointestinal Oncology Program offers all aspects of pancreatic cancer care—including prevention, diagnosis, treatment and support—in a single, convenient location. Through our highly focused efforts, we continue to transform the landscape of cancer care. As a result, our patient outcomes outrank the national averages and our patients benefit from the best possible quality of life.

If you would like to learn more about pancreatic cancer causes and risk factors, you can request an appointment with a specialist at Moffitt by calling 1-888-663-3488  or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.