Pancreatic Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

Pancreatic Cancer Causes & Risk Factors


We don’t know the exact cause of pancreatic cancer. But we know there are some things that can raise your chances of getting pancreatic cancer.

Is Pancreatic Cancer Genetic or Hereditary?

Genetic risk factors for pancreatic cancer

People with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer are 9 times more likely to get it.

Hereditary cancer is caused by a gene change (mutation or variant) that can be passed down to generations in a family.

When we say family, we mean people related to you by blood. They’re not related to you through marriage or adoption. We call these family members your blood relatives.

If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, MSK’s Clinical Genetics Service can help. They will review your personal and family history and genetic test results with you.

They can explain what it means for you if a blood relative has pancreatic cancer. They will explain what you can do to find cancer early or lower your cancer risk. They also can tell you who else in your family is at risk for pancreatic cancer.

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Pancreatic cancer and tumor genetic testing 

It’s important to get information about the genetic changes (mutations or variants) in the pancreatic tumor. Tumor genetic profiling tests show whether cancer is caused by genetic changes. We can choose drugs that target the molecular changes in a tumor. The first step is to learn which gene mutations the tumor has. 

MSK offers next-generation DNA sequencing tests: 

  • MSK-IMPACT® looks for mutations in tumor cells that are linked to cancer. This information helps us choose the right treatment. MSK-IMPACT also does germline testing for inherited cancers.  
  • MSK-ACCESS® looks for tumor mutations through a blood test. MSK-ACCESS is often used when it’s hard to do a tumor biopsy or if waiting for a biopsy delays treatment.  

Genes that cause pancreatic cancer

About 10 out of every 100 people with pancreatic cancer have an inherited genetic change.         

Familial pancreatic cancer means 2 or more first-degree blood relatives were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A first-degree blood relative is a parent, sibling, or child who is not related to you by marriage or adoption.

A few genetic conditions can be passed down that make someone more likely to get pancreatic cancer. They include:

  • BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations
  • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome. This is caused by mutations in the CDKN2A/p16 gene and raises the risk for melanoma and pancreatic cancer
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
  • Lynch syndrome
  • PALB2 mutation
  • An ATM mutation
  • Hereditary pancreatitis. This is caused by mutations in the PRSS1, SPINK1, CFTR (cystic fibrosis), or CTRC genes. Hereditary pancreatitis raises the risk of getting pancreatitis many times and of getting pancreatic cancer.

MSK offers a multi-gene panel test for hereditary pancreatic cancer. A multi-gene panel test is when we test many genes at once using the same saliva or blood sample. By testing many genes at once, we may be able to find a hereditary cause of pancreatic cancer more quickly.

For information, read About the Multi-Gene Panel Test for Hereditary Pancreatic Cancer.

MSK researchers are working to identify risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Learn more about our Pancreatic Tumor Registry.

Other risk factors for pancreatic cancer

Smoking and pancreatic cancer

Tobacco use is the main risk factor for pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is 2 to 3 times more common in heavy smokers than in nonsmokers.

Your risk gets higher the more you smoke and the longer you smoke. The best way to lower your risk is to avoid smoking or quit. If you keep smoking, it can harm your health and how well your pancreatic cancer treatment works.


You’re more likely to get the disease after age 55. But younger people can get pancreatic cancer, too.

Race and ethnicity

Blacks are more likely to get pancreatic cancer than others (Caucasians, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans).


Research studies suggest that people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more are at higher risk. Researchers are studying whether physical activity and a low-fat diet can lower this risk.


Having type 2 diabetes may raise your risk. Pancreatic cancer also can cause the sudden onset of type 2 diabetes in some people.

Chronic pancreatitis 

Chronic inflammation of the pancreas may raise the risk of pancreatic cancer. It’s even more likely for people who smoke.

Chemical exposure

Environmental factors can raise your risk. Chemical substances that cause cancer (called carcinogens) include asbestos, pesticides, dyes, and petrochemicals. Exposure to them may be linked to pancreatic cancer.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that may also raise your risk for pancreatic cancer.

Can you prevent pancreatic cancer?

VIDEO | 00:51

How Can I Reduce My Risk of Pancreatic Cancer?

Our experts explain what those with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer can do to prevent it.
Video Details

There are risk factors that you can change to try to lower your chances of getting pancreatic cancer.

Do not smoke

The most important thing you can do if you smoke is to stop. MSK’s Tobacco Treatment Program can help you quit using tobacco products.

Watch your weight

Keeping your body at a healthy weight can lower your risk for pancreatic cancer. Obesity raises the chance you can get the disease.



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