Pancreatic cancer is a serious disease that affects the pancreas, an organ that helps with digestion and blood sugar regulation. Pancreatic cancer is often hard to detect and treat, as it may not cause any symptoms until it has spread to other organs.
What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?
Risk factors are anything that can increase your chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors, such as age, gender, race, and family history, cannot be changed. Others, such as smoking, diet, obesity, and alcohol use, can be modified by lifestyle choices. Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will get pancreatic cancer, but it may help you and your doctor to assess your risk and take preventive measures.
Some of the risk factors for pancreatic cancer are:
- Smoking: Smoking is the most important modifiable risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Smokers are about twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as nonsmokers². The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and the duration of smoking. Quitting smoking can lower the risk of pancreatic cancer and other diseases.
- Diabetes: People with diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than people without diabetes². The reason for this link is not clear, but it may be related to high blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, inflammation, or other factors. Controlling diabetes with medication, diet, and exercise may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Chronic pancreatitis: Chronic pancreatitis is a condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed and damaged over time. It can cause abdominal pain, digestive problems, diabetes, and malnutrition. Chronic pancreatitis can be caused by alcohol abuse, genetic mutations, autoimmune disorders, or other factors. People with chronic pancreatitis have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than people without this condition². Treating chronic pancreatitis may lower the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Family history: Pancreatic cancer can run in families, especially if two or more close relatives (such as parents, siblings, or children) have had this disease². This may be due to inherited gene mutations that increase the risk of pancreatic cancer and other cancers. Some of the genetic syndromes that can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer are:
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome (HBOC), caused by mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes³.
- Hereditary breast cancer, caused by mutations in the PALB2 gene³.
- Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, caused by mutations in the p16/CDKN2A gene and associated with skin and eye melanomas³.
- Familial pancreatitis, usually caused by mutations in the PRSS1 gene³.
- Lynch syndrome (LS), also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), most often caused by a defect in the MLH1 or MSH2 genes³.
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS), caused by defects in the STK11 gene. This syndrome is also linked with polyps in the digestive tract and several other cancers³.
People with a family history of pancreatic cancer or any of these genetic syndromes should consult their doctor about genetic testing and screening options.
- Other factors: Some other factors that may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer are:
- Age: The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are over 45 years old, and the average age at diagnosis is 70².
- Gender: Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women. This may be partly due to higher rates of smoking and alcohol use among men².
- Race: African Americans have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than whites. This may be partly due to higher rates of diabetes and obesity among African Americans².
- Diet: A diet high in red meat, processed meat, fat, sugar, and calories may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. A diet low in fruits, vegetables, fiber, and antioxidants may also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer². Eating a balanced diet rich in plant-based foods may lower the risk of pancreatic cancer and other diseases.
- Obesity: Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer by affecting insulin levels, inflammation, hormones, and bile acids². Losing weight and maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI) may lower the risk of pancreatic cancer and other diseases.
- Alcohol use: Heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer by causing chronic pancreatitis, liver damage, and nutritional deficiencies². Limiting alcohol intake or avoiding it altogether may lower the risk of pancreatic cancer and other diseases.
How can you reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer?
There is no sure way to prevent pancreatic cancer, but you can take some steps to lower your risk, such as:
- Quitting smoking or never starting
- Controlling diabetes with medication, diet, and exercise
- Treating chronic pancreatitis and other medical conditions
- Getting regular check-ups and screening tests
- Knowing your family history and genetic status
- Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber, and antioxidants
- Maintaining a healthy weight and BMI
- Limiting alcohol intake or avoiding it altogether
By making these lifestyle changes, you can not only reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer, but also improve your overall health and well-being.