Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors and Symptoms

Causes of Pancreatic Cancer

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is yet to be determined. However, genetics appear to play a large role, as they do with other cancers. People with family members who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are at a greater risk of developing it themselves.

In addition, a number of diseases have been associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, including:

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis
  • Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome)
  • Familial breast cancer associated with the BRAC2 gene
  • Hereditary pancreatitis
  • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (a form of skin cancer)

Hereditary risk for any of the above diseases can lead to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. However, this predisposition accounts for only approximately 10% of all pancreatic cancers. A far greater number of cases develop as a result of environmental and lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, and chemical exposure. A personal history of chronic pancreatitis is associated with an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Risk Factors

Risks  for pancreatic cancer include the following:

  • Age. The vast majority of cases of pancreatic cancer occur in individuals aged 65 years and older.
  • Race. Black men and women have a greater likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Sex. Men are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Excess alcohol. People who drink 9 or more alcoholic drinks every day are at increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer.3,4
  • Cigarette smoking. Smokers are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than nonsmokers. Smoking is the single greatest risk factor, associated with almost one-third of all cases of pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes. Multiple large studies have shown that people diagnosed with diabetes (abnormal glucose metabolism) are at significantly increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.4,5
  • Weight. Multiple large studies have shown that people who are obese, with a body mass index (BMI) 30 or greater, are at increased risk for developing pancreatic cancer (a large study showed that the risk was 47% greater compared to people who were not obese).6,7
  • Diet. Diets high in animal fats and low in fruits and vegetables are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. A large study has also shown that consumption of processed meat and red meat is associated with an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.8
  • Chemical exposure. Individuals working with petroleum agents such as gasoline and fuel oils are at increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Bacteria. Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a bacterium that can infect the gut, and it is one of the most common gut infections in humans, affecting approximately one-third of the US population. H. pylori is well known to cause ulcers, but many studies are now linking it to the development of pancreatic cancer.9
  • ABO blood type has also been shown to be associated with a risk of developing pancreatic cancer10

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

In many cases, there are no symptoms in pancreatic cancer until its late stages. The following is a list of symptoms that could indicate pancreatic cancer, but many other conditions can present with similar symptoms. If you exhibit any of the below symptoms, contact your physician as soon as possible:

  • Upper abdominal pain that may extend to the middle or upper back
  • Weight loss
  • Jaundice—yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. This condition is fairly common among patients with pancreatic cancer and develops when blood cells become worn out and break down into bilirubin. Normally, bilirubin is eliminated in the bile, which is a fluid produced by the liver. However, if a pancreatic tumor blocks the flow of bile, jaundice may occur.
  • Sever itching may occur, owing to a build-up of bile acids.
  • Nausea and vomiting can occur during later stages if a pancreatic tumor has grown sufficiently large to block a portion of the digestive tract (usually the duodenum).
  • Digestive problems can occur because the pancreas is an integral part of the digestive system.