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Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

We don’t fully understand exactly what causes pancreatic cancer but we do know some risk factors. A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of getting a disease.

A lot of the evidence about the risk factors for pancreatic cancer is unclear. Some studies may find that something increases the risk, while others may show that it has no effect. And there may be other risk factors that researchers haven’t yet found.

The information here is about the things research suggests may increase someone’s risk of pancreatic cancer. It’s important to remember that having some of the risk factors doesn’t mean you will definitely get pancreatic cancer. Remember too that people sometimes get pancreatic cancer even if they don’t have any of the risk factors.

What are the known risk factors?

There is good evidence that age, smoking, being overweight, a family history of pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, and diabetes may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.

Some evidence has suggested that the following may also increase your risk:

We need more research to show whether these definitely do increase your risk.

Main risk factors

Age

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age, as with many other cancers. In the UK, nearly half (47%) of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are aged over 75.

Smoking

We know that smoking cigarettes and cigars can cause pancreatic cancer. It’s estimated that smoking causes nearly one in three pancreatic cancers (29%) in the UK. Your risk of pancreatic cancer increases the more you smoke, and the longer you have smoked for.

There’s no evidence at the moment about e-cigarettes and risk of pancreatic cancer.

Stopping smoking can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. Around 5–10 years after stopping, your risk may return to what it would be if you had never smoked.

Being overweight

Research shows that being overweight or obese increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. Around one in eight pancreatic cancers (12%) may be linked to being overweight or obese.

Researchers think that in the UK around one in six pancreatic cancer cases (16%) could be prevented if we all kept to a healthy weight.

Family history of pancreatic cancer

Occasionally, pancreatic cancer may run in a family. This isn’t common – it’s less than one in ten (10%) of pancreatic cancers. It includes:

  • families with two or more first-degree relatives (parent, brother, sister or child) with pancreatic cancer
  • families with three or more relatives with pancreatic cancer on the same side of the family
  • families with a family cancer syndrome and at least one family member with pancreatic cancer. Family cancer syndromes are rare genetic conditions where a faulty gene increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Read more about family history of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. The main symptom is tummy (abdominal) pain that may come and go but can last for hours or days. Some people feel or are sick (nausea and vomiting) during the pain. Over time, people may get pain more often and it becomes more severe. Over many years, pancreatitis can start to cause other symptoms that are linked to problems digesting food. These can be similar to the diet symptoms caused by pancreatic cancer.

Hereditary pancreatitis is a rare type of pancreatitis that runs in families. It usually starts in childhood. People with hereditary pancreatitis have a much higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The risk may be higher still for people who also smoke or have diabetes. The EUROPAC study is looking at hereditary pancreatitis to try to learn more about it.

Chronic pancreatitis is long-term pancreatitis. People with chronic pancreatitis have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

NHS Choices has more information about pancreatitis, including the symptoms.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition where your blood sugar level isn’t properly controlled. Blood sugar level is controlled by a hormone called insulin, which is produced by the pancreas.

People with diabetes may have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. But diabetes is common and most people with diabetes won’t get pancreatic cancer.

Diabetes can also be a symptom of pancreatic cancer. If you are over 60, have recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and have lost weight without any clear cause, speak to your GP. They should refer you for a scan within two weeks to check for any problems.

Other possible risk factors

Some research has suggested that the following things may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer. But we need more research into them.

History of cancer

Some research suggests that you may have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer if you have already had some other cancers. These include cancers of the breast, kidneys, mouth, larynx (voice box), uterus (womb), cervix (neck of the womb), ovaries, bladder, lungs, testicles, prostate, bowel and stomach.

This may be because some of the same things can cause these cancers, such as smoking, or there could be a genetic link. Previous cancer treatment such as radiotherapy can also sometimes increase the risk of another cancer.

Alcohol

There is some evidence that drinking a lot of alcohol may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer and of getting it at a younger age. The risk may be higher still for people who smoke as well as drink.Drinking a moderate amount of alcohol doesn’t appear to increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

It is unclear exactly how much alcohol may increase the risk. Some studies suggest that drinking more than 15g or two units of alcohol a day may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer, but other studies have found that only much higher amounts of alcohol increase the risk.We need more research into drinking alcohol and the risk of pancreatic cancer.

NHS Choices has more information about how many units of alcohol there are in different drinks and recommended drinking limits to keep your health risks low.

Red and processed meat 

Eating red meat may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, particularly meat cooked at high temperatures. Red meat includes beef, lamb and pork.

Eating processed meat may also increase your risk of pancreatic cancer. Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemical preservatives. It includes sausages, ham, bacon, salami and burgers.

Blood group

There is some evidence that people with blood groups A, AB and B may have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. But people with blood group O may have a lower risk. We don’t know why blood group might affect your risk, but it may be linked to genes.

Gallstones and gall bladder surgery

Some evidence suggests that people who have gallstones or have had their gall bladder removed (cholecystectomy) may have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, although other studies have found no link.

 

Published January 2018

Review date January 2021

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