A mix of genes and environmental risk factors contribute to this often deadly form of cancer.
Medical experts don’t know exactly why people get pancreatic cancer, but they have made progress in understanding the biological basis of the disease and the factors that increase the risk of getting it. Like other forms of cancer, pancreatic cancer results from alterations (mutations) in the DNA of certain cells in the pancreas. These genetic mutations instruct cells to multiply wildly and form malignant tumors.
Is pancreatic cancer hereditary?
Researchers estimate that in about 10% of cases the answer is yes. Gene mutations that increase susceptibility to disease are passed from parent to child. A 2018 study identified six genes with an association with pancreatic cancer. In this study, the genes were identified at a higher rate in people with a family history of the disease. Pancreatic cancer can also be the result of genetic mutations occurring throughout life, for various reasons related to environmental exposures or lifestyle choices, such as smoking.
For many patients, the cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown. Researchers believe that the trigger for the disease may be a random event that occurs spontaneously in cells.
What increases the risk of pancreatic cancer?
In the general population, a person has an average chance of developing pancreatic cancer.
But there are a number of factors that can increase the odds:
The older you are, the more likely you are to develop pancreatic cancer. About 90% of people with the disease are over 55, and 70% are over 65. But younger people can also get pancreatic cancer.
Men are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women.
Smokers have twice the risk of pancreatic cancer as non-smokers; approximately 20-30% of pancreatic cancers are associated with cigarette smoking. Cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco products can also cause problems.
Obesity and diet
Obese people have about a 20% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Overweight (but not obese) men and women are also more at risk, especially if they have extra pounds around their waists. Although the link between pancreatic cancer and diet needs further research, some studies have linked the disease to a high intake of fatty foods or a diet high in red or processed meats ( such as sausage) and low in fruits and vegetables.
There is a significant body of evidence linking diabetes to pancreatic cancer, especially in people who have had the condition for many years. Sudden onset of diabetes can also be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer can run in families, most likely due to common genetic mutations. This condition, called familial pancreatic cancer (CPF), accounts for about 10% of all cases. A family is considered to have PFC if two or more first-degree relatives (parent, child, sibling) have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, or if three or more close relatives on the same side of the family were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
This painful inflammation of the pancreas, which can be caused by alcohol abuse, has been linked to pancreatic cancer.
Rare hereditary conditions
These are hereditary pancreatitis, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, familial malignant melanoma and pancreatic cancer, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome and Lynch syndrome.
Chemicals in the workplace
Chemicals used for dry cleaning and metalworking are particularly dangerous.
A common bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) causes inflammation and ulcers in the stomach and may also, to a lesser extent, increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Hepatitis B virus infection
There is some evidence linking the virus to pancreatic cancer, although more research is needed.
This disease, often caused by alcohol abuse, develops when damage to liver cells leads to the formation of scar tissue. (5)
Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?
Researchers are working to develop reliable detection tests to spot pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable. The hope is to identify indicators of the disease, also called biomarkers, which would be detectable by a blood test or the analysis of another substance in the body. Until these tests become available, people who are at high risk, due to mutations passed down in families, for example, or rare genetic diseases, can participate in experimental screening programs that use various imaging methods, such as endoscopic ultrasound and CT scan.
But while risk factors like family history cannot be changed, there are a number of things anyone can do to minimize their chances of developing pancreatic cancer:
– Do not smoke. This is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer.
– Maintain a healthy weight. To help achieve this goal, follow a healthy diet that emphasizes plant foods and includes at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables daily. Cancer prevention guidelines also recommend choosing whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals over refined grains, and opting for fish, poultry, or beans over processed meats and Red meat.
– Limit alcohol. Some (but not all) studies have linked heavy alcohol consumption to pancreatic cancer.
– Avoid dangerous chemicals in the workplace. Minimize your exposure to chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer.