Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer: What causes and Risk factors?

Pancreatic Cancer: What Causes It and Who Is at Risk?

Discover the causes and risks associated with pancreatic cancer. Learn who is most vulnerable to this condition.


Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer, with a 5-year survival rate of only 9%. It’s the 4th leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Every year, over 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with this aggressive disease.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it has spread to other organs. This makes early diagnosis and treatment extremely difficult. Understanding the causes and risk factors is crucial for prevention and catching it early when it’s most treatable.

In this guide, we’ll dive deep into what Pancreas Cancer is, what causes it, who’s at the highest risk, and steps you can take to lower your risk.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

It begins in the pancreas – an organ located behind the stomach that aids in digestion and blood sugar regulation. It starts when cells in the pancreas develop mutations in their DNA, causing them to grow out of control and form a tumor.

There are two main types:

  1. Exocrine tumors– These start in the exocrine cells that produce digestive enzymes. The most common form is adenocarcinoma.
  2. Neuroendocrine tumors– These develop in the hormone-producing cells and are less common.

Both types can metastasize and spread to other organs, like the liver, if not caught early. This makes Pancreatic Tumor highly lethal and difficult to treat.

Over 90% of pancreatic cancer cases are adenocarcinomas of the exocrine pancreas. This is the dominant type we’ll refer to as ” Pancreatic Tumor.

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

The exact causes of Pancreas Cancer are not fully understood. However, research shows it results from a combination of genetic mutations and exposure to certain risk factors.

Let’s look at some of the major culprits behind the development of this deadly disease.

Genetic Mutations

All cancers begin with mutations or errors in a cell’s DNA that allow it to grow uncontrollably. In Pancreatic Carcinoma, several genes mutations have been identified:

  • KRAS oncogene – Found in over 90% of pancreatic adenocarcinomas. It controls cell growth and division.
  • TP53 tumor suppressor gene – Regulates cell growth and death. Mutations disrupt this regulation.
  • CDKN2A tumor suppressor gene – Also controls cell growth and division. Mutated in much Pancreatic Carcinoma.
  • SMAD4 gene – Regulates cell signalling pathways. Can contribute to cancer growth if mutated.
  • BRCA1/BRCA2 genes – are known to increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, but are also linked to some pancreatic cancers.

Inheriting certain genetic mutations passed down from parents increases one’s risk. However, pancreatic cancer is considered sporadic when gene mutations occur randomly during a person’s lifetime.

Most cases arise from acquired (non-inherited) gene mutations combined with exposure to other risk factors like:


Tobacco use is one of the most significant risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Smokers have about twice the risk compared to non-smokers.

Chemicals in cigarette smoke like nitrosamines can damage DNA and lead to cancer-causing mutations in pancreatic cells over time. The more you smoke and the longer you’ve smoked, the higher your risk.

Obesity and Lack of Exercise

Numerous studies link being overweight with an increased risk of developing Pancreatic Carcinoma. Excess weight, especially around the abdomen, promotes chronic inflammation. This can contribute to DNA damage and cancer growth.

Similarly, leading a sedentary lifestyle with little physical activity elevates Pancreatic Carcinoma risk. Exercise helps regulate inflammation and hormone levels to lower cancer risk.


Type 2 diabetes has been consistently associated with a higher incidence of Pancreas Cancer. The exact mechanisms are still being studied. However, metabolic disorders and factors like inflammation that contribute to diabetes may also play a role in pancreatic tumor development.

Diet and Nutrition

While more research is needed, some dietary factors are linked to Pancreas Cancer risk:

  • Diets high in red/processed meats
  • Diets low in fruits and vegetables
  • Overconsumption of sugar and sugary beverages
  • Vitamin deficiencies like vitamin D

A diet filled with whole, antioxidant-rich plant foods may help lower risk by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.

Other Risk Factors

Some additional factors may influence one’s chances of developing Pancreas Cancer:

  • Chronic pancreatitis – Long-term inflammation of the pancreas
  • Older age – Most cases occur after age 65.
  • Male gender – Slightly higher incidence in men
  • Ethnicity – African Americans have higher rates.
  • H. pylori infection – May increase risk in some cases.

Key Pancreas Cancer Risk Factors At-a-Glance

Risk Factor Increases Risk?
Smoking Yes, a major risk
Obesity/Inactivity Yes
Type 2 Diabetes Yes
Poor Diet Possibly
Family History Yes
Older Age Yes
Male Gender Slightly
Pancreatitis Yes

Genetic Risk Factors

While most pancreatic cancer cases are not directly inherited, having a family history does increase one’s risk somewhat. About 10% of patients have a family member who also had the disease.

Several genetic syndromes are linked to higher Pancreas Cancer risk:

  • Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Syndrome: Caused by mutations in BRCA1/2 genes.
  • Lynch Syndrome: An inherited condition that increases colon and other cancer risks.
  • Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP): Characterized by many precancerous colon polyps at a young age.
  • Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome (PJS): Causes increased pigmentation and polyp growth.
  • Hereditary Pancreatitis: Inherited mutations causing recurrent, severe pancreatitis.

Even in the absence of a known cancer syndrome, having two or more first-degree relatives with Pancreatic Tumor significantly increases one’s lifetime risk.

Age and Gender Factors

Pancreas Cancer is relatively uncommon in people under 45. The chances of developing it increase significantly as you get older, with most cases occurring after age 65.

Men also face a slightly higher lifetime risk (1 in 63) compared to women (1 in 65). The reasons for this gender disparity are still being explored.

Chronic Pancreatitis Risk

Chronic pancreatitis is the long-term inflammation of the pancreas. Having repeated episodes of pancreatitis and prolonged inflammation greatly increases your chances of developing pancreatic cancer.

Some potential causes of chronic pancreatitis include:

  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Genetic mutations
  • Severe gallstone issues

Managing underlying conditions that cause pancreatitis can help reduce your risk. Avoiding alcohol if you have chronic pancreatitis is especially important.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

Certain modifiable risk factors related to lifestyle choices also play a major role in determining one’s pancreatic cancer risk:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Being overweight or obese (body mass index over 30)
  • Low physical activity levels
  • High consumption of red/processed meats
  • Diets lack fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Type 2 diabetes (uncontrolled)

Maintaining a healthy body weight, staying active, eating a balanced diet, not smoking, and managing diabetes can all lower your chances of developing pancreatic cancer.

Reducing Your Pancreatic Cancer Risk

While some risk factors like age, gender, and genetics are out of your control, there are still important lifestyle changes you can make to lower your Pancreas Cancer risk:

  • Quit smoking (or never start) to eliminate a major risk factor.
  • Lose weight through diet and exercise if overweight/obese.
  • Exercise regularly and stay physically active.
  • Eat a balanced, plant-based diet rich in whole foods.
  • Control diabetes through diet, exercise, and medication.
  • Limit alcohol intake to reduce chronic pancreatitis risk.
  • Get screened if you have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer.

Signs and Symptoms

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer rarely causes obvious symptoms until later stages when it’s harder to treat.

Some potential signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin/eyes)
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Digestive issues like nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

See your doctor promptly if you experience any of these red flags, especially if pancreatic cancer runs in your family or you’re at higher risk.

Early detection enormously improves survival odds, but it requires vigilance in identifying potential warning signs.


In summary, Pancreas Cancer arises from a complex mix of genetic mutations, environmental exposures, and lifestyle factors. While more research is still needed, we know some key causes and risk factors:

  • Gene mutations, especially in KRAS, TP53, and BRCA genes
  • Smoking doubles pancreatic cancer risk compared to non-smokers.
  • Obesity and physical inactivity promote inflammation and cancer growth.
  • Uncontrolled diabetes is also a significant risk factor.
  • A diet high in red meat and low in plant foods may increase risk.
  • Risk is higher for those with a family history, chronic pancreatitis, and older age.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer has a high mortality rate in part because there is a lack of early screening and obvious warning signs. This underscores how crucial prevention and healthy lifestyle choices are.

While you can’t control every risk factor, being proactive by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and managing diabetes through diet and exercise can all dramatically reduce your chances of developing this deadly disease.


 Q: What are the survival rates for pancreatic cancer? A: Survival rates are quite low, with only 9% of patients surviving 5 years post-diagnosis. However, when caught early in Stage 1, the 5-year survival rate is around 39%.

Q: Does pancreatitis always lead to pancreatic cancer? A: No, while pancreatitis is a risk factor, most cases of acute or chronic pancreatitis do not directly cause pancreatic cancer. Managing pancreatitis is still important to reduce cancer risk.

Q: Can quitting smoking lower my pancreatic cancer risk if I’m a former smoker? A: Yes, quitting smoking can significantly reduce your risk over time compared to active smokers. However, former smokers still have a slightly higher risk than those who never smoked.

Q: Are there any screening tests available for pancreatic cancer? A: Currently there are no routine screening tests for the general population. Screening is sometimes done for high-risk individuals with a strong family history using methods like endoscopy or MRI.

Q: What percentage of pancreatic cancer cases are genetic? A: Only about 10% of pancreatic cancers are directly caused by inherited gene mutations. The vast majority (90%) occur sporadically from non-inherited mutations combined with other risk factors.

Making lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, exercising, and eating a balanced diet are important steps everyone can take to reduce their risk.

Being vigilant about potential symptoms and discussing your personal risk factors with your doctor is also crucial for early detection and improved prognosis.

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