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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Pancreatic cancer risk factors

The 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 cells. The risk factors, symptoms and treatment of each type of pancreatic tumor may be different because the affected cells behave differently.

cancer risks

Pancreatic cancer risk factors


  • Age (close to 90 percent of all pancreatic cancers are found in people age 55 and older)
  • Gender: For an unknown reason, men are somewhat more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than are women.
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection


  • Smoking cigarettes: Almost a third (20-30 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.


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)
  • Mutations in the gene NF1 (neurofibromatosis, type 1)

Other inherited syndromes that may be linked to pancreatic cancer include:

  • Lynch Syndrome
  • Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome (PJS)
  • Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome (VHL)
  • MEN1 (multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1) syndrome: A rare genetic disorder that may be a risk factor for malignant islet cell tumors
Last Revised: 10/12/2015

Understanding risk factors

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.

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