Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of getting pancreatic cancer, like family history, race (ethnicity), smoking, diabetes, obesity, age and others.

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Take this 10–question test to learn more about pancreatic cancer risk factors and what might increase your risk.


Risk Factors Associated with Pancreatic Cancer

If your first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing the disease. Your family member with pancreatic cancer is strongly recommended to get genetic testing for inherited mutations.

Negative results often mean you do not need to get genetic testing. If the results are positive, unknown or if you have several close family members with cancer, PanCAN recommends you consult with a genetic counselor to see if you should get genetic testing for inherited cancer risk and if you should discuss options for monitoring.

The risk increases if more family members are affected. Risk also increases if there is a history of familial breast, ovarian or colon cancer, familial melanoma or hereditary pancreatitis.

About 10% of pancreatic cancer cases are related to inherited mutations. Learn more about family history and pancreatic cancer.

Inherited genetic mutations and syndromes associated with a higher risk of getting pancreatic cancer include:

  • BRCA 1 or 2 mutation

  • Cystic Fibrosis

  • Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP)

  • Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma (FAMMM)

  • Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC) or Lynch Syndrome

  • Hereditary pancreatitis

  • PALB2 mutation

  • Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome

Pancreatic cancer is more likely to occur in people who have had diabetes for more than five years.

Research also suggests that a sudden onset of type 2 diabetes may be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer, especially in those who are over the age of 50, have a low body mass index (BMI), are losing weight or do not have a family history of diabetes. PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative is currently studying this population with the goal of developing a way to find pancreatic cancer earlier.

Learn more about diabetes and pancreatic cancer.

Smoking is a significant risk factor. It may cause about 20 – 30% of all exocrine pancreatic cancer cases. People who smoke cigarettes are two times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than people who have never smoked.

Black Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer than people of Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian descent. Ashkenazi Jews also have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer, possibly because the BRCA2 gene mutation is higher in people in this group.

People who are obese have a 20% increased risk of developing the disease compared to people who are of normal weight. The risk is even higher in people who are obese during early adulthood. People with excessive abdominal fat may have an increased risk even if they are not obese.

People with chronic pancreatitis have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Chronic pancreatitis is common in people who consume large amounts of alcohol for many years.

Hereditary pancreatitis causes recurrent inflammation of the pancreas that generally starts by the time a person is 20 years old. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer is even higher in people who have hereditary pancreatitis than it is for those with chronic pancreatitis. Learn more about pancreatitis.

The chance of getting pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over the age of 60.

A diet high in red and processed meats is thought to increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. A diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk.

Some research suggests a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer is higher in people who drink more than three alcoholic drinks daily.

Research suggests that exposure to certain environmental chemicals and heavy metals may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. These include:

  • Beta-naphthylamine

  • Benzidine

  • Pesticides

  • Asbestos

  • Benzene

  • Chlorinated hydrocarbons

Periodontal (gum) disease and tooth loss appear to be linked to pancreatic cancer, even when controlling for other risk factors.

Pancreatic cysts are growths found on or within the pancreas that are filled with fluid. There are several different types of cysts and most are benign (non-cancerous), but some can be malignant (cancerous). While not all cysts are associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, a few are. These include:

  • Mucinous cystic neoplasms (MCNs)

  • Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMNs)

  • Solid pseudopapillary neoplasms

It is important for people with pancreatic cancer and those with concerning signs and symptoms to be their own best advocate. This means communicating early and often about new or worsening symptoms, asking questions and seeking second opinions if needed. Contact PanCAN Patient Services for information, guidance and support.

Visiting regularly with a primary care provider is also an important part of prevention. They can help you maintain wellness and understand personal risk, based on family history, pre-existing conditions and more. Primary care providers can answer any questions you have about lowering your risk of pancreatic cancer.