Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer

A number of factors can increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, people with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer are nine times more likely to develop it than others. If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, our doctors on the Clinical Genetics Service can help assess your personal risk for the disease.

If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, our specialists may refer you to MSK’s Familial Pancreatic Tumor Registry. This project is investigating the causes of pancreatic cancer in people with family members who also have the disease.

Approximately one in ten people with pancreatic cancer have at least one inherited genetic mutation. These changes in the genes, which are passed down through families, can also cause other diseases. Mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 have been found in some families that have a history of pancreatic cancer. These mutations increase the risk of breast, prostate, and certain gynecologic cancers. There are other inherited genetic factors we know about that do not greatly increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.

Lifestyle habits can affect your risk for pancreatic cancer as well. These include:

  • Smoking or tobacco use: Smoking is a major risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is two to three times more common in heavy smokers than in nonsmokers.
  • Age: Pancreatic cancer usually occurs in people older than 55.
  • Race and ethnicity: African-Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than Caucasians, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans.
  • Obesity: Evidence suggests that people with a body mass index of 30 or greater have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Researchers are studying whether physical activity and a low-fat diet can lower this risk.
  • Diabetes: Having type 2 diabetes may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer. In some people, the sudden onset of type 2 diabetes can be caused by pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: Chronic inflammation of the pancreas, especially in people who smoke, may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to cancer-causing substances (called carcinogens) such as asbestos, pesticides, dyes, and petrochemicals may be linked to the development of pancreatic cancer.