Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
Learn More About Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors: Chat with Us | Email Us
Video: Risk Factors for Pancreatic CancerGastroenterologist Dr. Pankaj Vashi identifies several risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Gastroenterologist Dr. Pankaj Vashi identifies several risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
The pancreas is vital to the digestion process, as it is responsible for producing some of the body's most important digestive "juices." This glandular-like organ is situated behind the stomach and connects to the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine).
The pancreatic juices (enzymes) are secreted into the small intestines to help further break down food (proteins, fats and starches) so that the nutrients can be absorbed by the body. Without these enzymes, the body would essentially starve because the nutrients, unavailable to the body, would just pass through.
In addition to aiding in digestion, the pancreas is also part of the endocrine system (glands that produce hormones to regulate the body). Insulin and glucagon, for example, are hormones produced by the pancreas that are used to regulate blood sugar levels. These two functions of the pancreas—making enzymes and hormones—are possible because of two different types of cells: exocrine cells (which produce the digestive enzymes) and endocrine cells (which produce the hormones).
Cancer can develop in either of these cell types, but about 95 percent of pancreatic cancers begin in the exocrine (enzyme-producing) cells. The less common pancreatic endocrine tumors (PET) are also called islet cell tumors or neuroendocrine tumors. The risk factors, symptoms and treatment of islet cell tumors may be different than that of exocrine pancreatic cancers because the affected cells behave differently.
Risk Factors for Malignant Islet Cell Tumors
Pancreatic cancers that begin in the endocrine cells are very rare. Most functional endocrine tumors, meaning that they still produce hormones, are often benign (not cancerous).
Malignant islet cell tumors typically are nonfunctional. Thus, the symptoms are more often related to the spread of the cancer rather than the over-production of a particular hormone, like gastrin, insulin or glucagon. This type of cancer may be caused by multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Neurofibromatosis, type 1, which is also an inherited disorder caused by mutations in the gene NF1, may also be a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
Risk Factors for Exocrine Pancreatic Cancers
The more common type of pancreatic cancer usually occurs in the exocrine cells. The majority of exocrine pancreatic cancers occur in people over the age of 45, and the average age of diagnosis is 72. For an unknown reason, men are somewhat more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than are women. Common pancreatic cancer risk factors include:
- Age (close to 90 percent of all pancreatic cancers are found in people age 55 and older)
- Smoking cigarettes
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection
About 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are thought to be related to genetic factors, meaning an inherited gene mutation is passed on from parents to their children. Although these genetic conditions do not directly cause pancreatic cancer, they may increase your risks for developing the disease. The following genetic mutations are considered risk factors for pancreatic cancer:
- Mutations in the gene BRCA2 (hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome)
- Mutations in the gene p16 (familial melanoma)
- Mutations in the gene PRSS1 (familial pancreatitis)
Other inherited syndromes that may be linked to pancreatic cancer include:
- Lynch Syndrome
- Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome (PJS)
- Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome (VHL)
Understanding Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
Almost a third (20 to 30 percent) of all pancreatic cancers are linked to smoking cigarettes. Carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) found in tobacco products may damage the pancreas, and smoking may add to the risks associated with other conditions, like long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis). Likewise, the risk of diabetes and obesity may also be greater if an individual smokes.
Although there is no proven method of prevention, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that quitting smoking greatly reduces the likelihood of developing several cancers, including pancreatic cancer.
Talk to your doctor today if you believe you may be at an increased risk because of a certain condition or genetic syndrome, or if you need help quitting smoking. Identifying your risk factors is the first step to managing a healthy lifestyle and minimizing your risk of cancer.
NOTE: Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer. Not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. If you think you may be at risk, you should discuss it with your doctor.
Next Topic: Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms