Pancreatic Cancer Risks: What You Need to Know


When people learn I had pancreatic cancer, one of the first questions they ask is, “What caused it?” I know what they are really wondering is, “Am I at risk for getting this awful cancer?” and “What can I do to prevent myself from getting it?” With a 5-year survival rate of only 6%, pancreatic cancer is a  frightening diagnosis. People have told me, “I don’t know much about pancreatic cancer, but I know it is one cancer you really don’t want to get!” Of course, no one wants any form of cancer, but pancreatic cancer truly instills fear in people, and understandably so. 

In many cases, doctors cannot determine why one person developed cancer and another did not. However, scientists are starting to unravel some of the causes of pancreatic cancer.  Therefore, when thinking about disease prevention, it is important to examine your own risk factors for an illness. After identifying your potential risk factors, you can decide whether you can cut your risk of developing an illness. 

Types of Risk Factors

Risk factors for illness fall into two categories: uncontrollable and controllable. Uncontrollable risk factors, as the name suggests, are things that you cannot do anything to change. For example, your age is something you cannot change. In contrast, controllable risk factors are the things that you can actually do something about. Here are some of the factors associated with developing pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors

These are the things that you cannot change. However, when assessing your own chances

-Age: Most cases of pancreatic cancer occur in people who are between the ages of 60 and 80.

-Gender: Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women.

-Race: Pancreatic cancer is more prevalent in the black community than among other races.

– Hereditary pancreatitis: Having an inherited form of pancreatitis can increase the risk of developing  pancreatic cancer.

-Genetics: About 10% of all cases of pancreatic cancer are genetically inherited. There are certain  hereditary genetic mutations and syndromes which include, but are not limited to, the  following:

1.BRCA1 & BRCA2 mutations, which are most often associated with breast cancer.

2. PALB2 genetic mutation

3. FAMMM- Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma.

4. Peutz-Jeghers syndrome- causes polyps in the intestines and pigmented spots on the mouth.

5. Lynch Syndrome which causes colon, uterine, ovarian and stomach cancers.

6. Ataxia telangiectasia (ATM) genetic mutations


In addition, there are other unidentified genetic mutations scientists are working diligently to discover. The hope is that we will eventually have therapies targeted towards those specific genetic mutations.

Controllable Risk Factors

Controllable risk factors are the things you can alter.  If you have any of the following risk factors, now is the time to make changes in your life. 

-Smoking: If you are not a smoker, do not start. If you are currently a smoker, take steps now to quit the habit. Smoking causes many cancers, including pancreatic cancer. A smoker’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about double the risk of a nonsmoker. If you are a smoker, quitting will help decrease your risk of developing pancreatic cancer over time.

-Obesity: Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, take steps to lose weight. There is a link between obesity and many cancers, including pancreatic.

-Physical Inactivity. Some studies have suggested that exercise may have a protective effect against  many cancers, including pancreatic. In addition, exercise helps to maintain a healthy weight,  which protects against developing cancer.

-Dietary Factors: While the link between pancreatic cancer and diet is still not unequivocally proven,  some studies have shown a connection. Diets high in fatty or fried foods and processed meats increase the chances of developing cancer. Diets which include a variety of fruits and vegetables tend to decrease the risk of developing  cancer.

-Diabetes: Having long-standing Type II diabetes may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. If you have Type II diabetes, work with your doctor to bring your glucose levels down.

-Chronic Pancreatitis: Having long-term chronic pancreatitis increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In some cases, altering one’s diet so it includes fewer greasy, fried foods can help reduce symptoms of pancreatitis.

Preventing Pancreatic Cancer

As you can see, there are several factors associated with developing pancreatic cancer. While you should not spend your time worrying about those factors you cannot change, awareness of these factors is important. If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, discuss it with your doctor. Furthermore, if you have several factors that fall in the ‘controllable’ category, start making lifestyle changes now. Losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising and eating a healthier diet may just help prevent you from developing pancreatic cancer. 

To learn more about pancreatic cancer statistics, signs and symptoms, click here:



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