Pancreatic cancer

Causes and risk factors of pancreatic cancer

Researchers are still trying to find the causes of pancreatic cancer, and more research is needed.

Researchers have learned that mutations (changes) in the DNA of pancreatic cells play a large role in the development of cancer and that these mutations cause pancreatic cells to behave abnormally.

These DNA mutations may be caused by our habits or environment (e.g. smoking), or less commonly may be inherited.

The mutations cause pancreatic cells to grow in a fast and uncontrolled manner, eventually developing into a mass or tumour that no longer works the same way as the original damaged cell. That’s why the research work is vital; a better understanding of the causes of pancreatic cancer is critical in order to find more effective treatments.

Risks

Despite the fact that the causes are poorly understood, there are things that do increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, including:

  • smoking
  • diabetes
  • diet, body weight and exercise
  • chronic pancreatitis
  • hereditary factors.

Smoking

More than one in four pancreatic cancers in Scotland are caused by smoking (cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco increase the risk).

Diabetes

Diabetes is a disease of the endocrine function of the pancreas in the cells that usually make insulin. People with type 1 or 2 diabetes have roughly twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. If you are over 50, develop diabetes and start losing weight for no obvious reason, your doctor should check you out for other pancreatic disease.

Diet, body weight and exercise

A number of lifestyle-related factors may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer including:

  • a diet that is high in saturated fat and sugar
  • not eating enough fresh vegetables and fruit (this is also true for other cancer types)
  • being overweight
  • doing little or no exercise.

Being overweight or obese increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, with around 1,000 cases in the UK each year linked to excess bodyweight. Eating processed meat may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Tomatoes which contain a substance called lycopene and vitamin C may give you added protection against developing pancreatic cancer.

Chronic pancreatitis

Long-term inflammation of the pancreas can increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Hereditary factors

It is thought that about 1 person in 10 who develops pancreatic cancer does so because of inherited factors. Most of these are due to the occurrence of very rare medical disorders, including:

  • hereditary pancreatitis
  • hereditary pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours
  • familial pancreatic cancer
  • familial cancer syndromes.

Hereditary pancreatitis

This is a rare condition that typically develops at an early age with recurrent episodes of chronic pancreatitis. It is likely that 4 out of 10 people with this condition will develop pancreatic cancer.

Hereditary pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours

These type of tumours can be caused by:

  • multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN-1)
  • von Hippel-Lindau disease (VHL)
  • neurofibromatosis type 1
  • tuberous sclerosis.

Familial pancreatic cancer

Some families don't have any of these medical conditions but have at least two first degree relatives affected by pancreatic cancer (a first degree relative is a father, mother, son, daughter, brother or sister).

These families may have familial pancreatic cancer. We don't know which gene or genes are linked to familial pancreatic cancer, and this is an active area of research.

It is recommended that if your family may have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer you are referred to a specialist cancer genetics centre, where you will be counselled about your personal risk and offered the chance to take part in genetic screening.

Familial cancer syndromes

Familial cancer syndromes are when an inherited faulty gene causes a number of different cancers to develop within the members of one family. These include:

  • the BRCA2 gene which is linked to breast, ovarian and prostate cancer
  • hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer
  • familial adenomatous polyposis
  • familial atypical mole and melanoma
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome which also causes polyps in the stomach and intestines.

Remember that having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get pancreatic cancer. Many people with one or more risk factors never get it. And sometimes people with none of these risk factors develop pancreatic cancer. Risk factors are only a guide to what may increase risk.

More information

For more information on screening for pancreatic cancer please visit the Pancreatic Cancer UK website.

Last updated: 02 August 2013

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