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 the same thing has no effect. And there may be other risk factors that researchers haven’t found yet.

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 for pancreatic cancer?

There is good evidence that age, smoking, being overweight or obese, 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.

What can I do?

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 more than one in five pancreatic cancers (22%) 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 20 years after stopping, your risk may return to what it would be if you had never smoked.

If you smoke, the NHS website has information to help you stop.

Being overweight

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

If you are overweight and don’t have pancreatic cancer, the NHS website has information to help you lose 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 the pain may become worse. Over many years, pancreatitis can start to cause other symptoms that are linked to problems digesting food. These can be similar to some of the 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.

The NHS website 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 seem to increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

It’s not clear 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. 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.

The NHS website has more information about how many units of alcohol there are in different drinks and recommended drinking limits to keep the risks to your health low. You can also find help with cutting down on alcohol.

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.

Read our fact sheet about risk factors

To read more about the risk factors of pancreatic cancer, download our fact sheet, Risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

Download our fact sheet

References and acknowledgements


References

If you would like the references to the sources used to write this information, email us at publications@pancreaticcancer.org.uk

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following people who reviewed our information on risk factors.

  • Dr Artitaya Lophatananon, Research Senior Lecturer, Division of Population Health, Health Services Research and Primary Care, The University of Manchester
  • Professor Christopher M Halloran, Professor of Pancreatic Surgery, Royal Liverpool Hospital
  • Dagfinn Aune, Research Associate, Imperial College London
  • Pancreatic Cancer UK Information Volunteers
  • Pancreatic Cancer UK Specialist Nurses

Published August 2021

Review date August 2024