What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Tony Subia
April 20, 2015

If you or someone in your family has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may wonder why it happened to you or a family member rather than someone else. Most pancreatic cancers arise from cells that line the ducts, the portion of the pancreas that carries pancreatic enzymes to the small intestines to aid in digestion.

Pancreatic cancer, and other forms of cancer, is believed to be caused by mutations to genetic material, called DNA, which makes up each cell in your body. DNA provides the genetic “blueprint” or map that tells cells how to behave and determines characteristics like your eye color, hair color and susceptibility to disease.

You enter the world with the genes received from your mother and father. As you may know, some types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer, are more common in certain families. In some cases, people inherit a gene from a parent that places them at higher risk for pancreatic cancer. This gene may or may not be expressed based on a person’s lifestyle habits and what they’re exposed to from the environment.

Role the Environment and Lifestyle Plays

We are all bombarded with chemicals in the air, water and food that have the capability of damaging our DNA over time. Some people add to the potential damage by smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, continuously eating an unhealthy diet, and practicing a sedentary lifestyle. If you inherited genes that make you more susceptible to pancreatic cancer, exposure to certain environmental factors and adapting unhealthy lifestyles will magnify the potential of getting cancer of the pancreas.

Even if you aren’t genetically susceptible to pancreatic cancer, exposure to high levels of environmental factors can injure your DNA enough to initiate a cancer.

It’s clear that genetics and unhealthy lifestyle plays a role in who develops pancreatic cancer, but there’s also a significant element of “random bad luck.” DNA is accidentally damaged during the process of gene replication. If this damage affects a “cancer” gene in a cell in the pancreas, it can lead to unregulated growth of that cell, leading to a cancer.

Unfortunately, you don’t have control over the genes you inherit or whether your DNA is accidentally damaged, although you do have some control over exposure to environmental factors, diet, and lifestyle. A number of environmental and lifestyle factors increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Exposure to these risk factors is no guarantee you will get cancer of the pancreas, just as avoiding these exposures is no assurance you will not develop the disease.

Controllable Lifestyle Choices That Increase The Risk of Getting Pancreatic Cancer

Cigarette Smoking. Most studies conclude smoking as the most profound risk factor.

Obesity. Being significantly overweight is a major cause of Type 2 Diabetes which in-turn is a high risk factor of pancreatic cancer.

Chronic Pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis is recurring severe inflammation of the pancreas. It can be hereditary but is often caused by long term extreme abuse of alcohol.

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors Beyond Your Control

Family History of Pancreatic Cancer. Inherited genes of family members with a history of pancreatic
cancer creates greater risk of getting cancer of the pancreas. Various studies show that 5 to 10% of
cases have close family members who had or do have pancreatic cancer.

Advancing Age. The incidence rate increases dramatically with advancing age. About 90% of cases are diagnosed at ages 55 and over. However, younger people should be diligent and practice healthy lifestyles because studies show that it takes over 11 years for the first mutated cancer cell to develop.The actual genesis pancreatic cancer begins well before diagnosis.

Race Incidence Rate. Pancreatic cancer is substantially more common among African Americans versus Caucasians and other racial groups. Asians have the lowest incidence rate.

Sex. Men are more prone to getting pancreatic cancer than women. Reasons could be attributable to smoking rate and attention to healthcare concern.

Read More About Risk Factors
How To Lower Pancreatic Risk Factors
Incidence Rate Among Racial Groups

The Bottom Line

Pancreatic cancer cannot be prevented. There is no easy way of early detection. And there is no way to determine or predict who will or won’t get pancreatic cancer. About 5 to 10% of cases are predisposed by heredity. The overwhelming majority of those diagnosed are simply a case of sheer bad luck.

Reference Sources

Johns Hopkins Medicine. “What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?”
WebMD. “Pancreatic Cancer: Causes and Risk Factors”
American Cancer Society. “Do We Know What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?”

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