Pancreatic Cancer: Risk Factors

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2023

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing pancreatic cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. These risk factors can be out of your control, such as genetics or age, while others can be in your control, such as smoking. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with 1 or more risk factors may never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor and health care team may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

Often, the cause of pancreatic cancer is not known. A person with an "average risk" of pancreatic cancer has about a 1% chance of developing the disease. Generally, most pancreatic cancers (about 90%) are considered sporadic. Also called somatic mutations, this means the genetic changes that led to cancer developed by chance after a person was born. There is no risk of passing these genetic changes on to one’s children.

Inherited pancreatic cancers are less common (about 10% of all pancreatic cancers). They occur when gene mutations or changes are passed within a family from 1 generation to the next (see below), raising the risk of pancreatic cancer. These are also called germline mutations. See below for specific inherited conditions that increase a person's risk of pancreatic cancer. To learn more about inherited pancreatic cancers and their relationship to other types of cancers with which they share genetic mutations, you can contact a Pancreatic Cancer Familial Registry.

Early detection and prevention for any cancer can lead to the most favorable long-term patient outcomes. Researchers in pancreatic cancer continue to search for answers to develop a routine screening method for the general population, as none currently exists.

In general, the following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Age. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are older than 45. In fact, 90% are older than 55 and 70% are older than 65. However, adults of any age can be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, as can children rarely.

  • Sex. More men are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than women (see Statistics).

  • Race/ethnicity. Black people are more likely than Asian, Hispanic, or White people to develop pancreatic cancer. People of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage are also more likely to develop pancreatic cancer (see "Family history," below).

  • Smoking. People who smoke tobacco are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who don’t. Learn more about quitting smoking.

  • Obesity, diet, and alcohol. Regularly eating foods high in fat is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Research has shown that obese and even overweight people have a higher risk of being diagnosed with and dying from pancreatic cancer. Chronic, heavy alcohol use can also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, most likely by causing recurrent pancreatitis, which is repeated inflammation of the pancreas. Learn more about how cancer risk relates to obesityfood choices, and drinking alcohol.

  • Diabetes. Many studies have indicated that diabetes increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, especially when a person has had diabetes for many years. In addition, suddenly developing diabetes later in adulthood, sometimes called new-onset or adult-onset diabetes, can be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. However, it is important to remember that not all people who have diabetes or who are diagnosed with diabetes as adults develop pancreatic cancer. Talk with your health care team and genetic counselor if you have diabetes.

  • Family history. Pancreatic cancer may run in the family and/or may be linked with genetic conditions that increase the risk of other types of cancer. This is called familial pancreatic cancer. Keeping track of your family's history of health conditions is a recommended practice. This should include siblings of your parents and grandparents through current generations of your family. You and your family may be at an increased risk if 2 or more first-degree relatives or at least 3 members of the family have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. First-degree relatives include parents, children, and siblings. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) encourages people diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma to talk with their doctor about their family history of cancer. Even without a strong family history of cancer, people diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma are recommended to undergo genetic testing for hereditary pancreatic cancer. People with a family history of other cancer types that have genetic mutations in common with pancreatic cancer may also want to consider having discussions with a genetic counselor. Talk with your health care team about whether genetic testing is right for you and whether you should speak with a genetic counselor.

    Families and individuals with inherited genetic changes, called mutations or alterations, in certain genes, including BRCA1, BRCA2, PALB2, CDKN2A, ATM, MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, STK11/LKB1, P16, P53, PRSS1, FANC-C, FANC-G, or EPCAM, are at increased risk for pancreatic cancer. Some of these genes are responsible for causing the hereditary syndromes described below.

    There are specialized research studies looking at pancreatic screening tools, such as magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) and endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), for these high-risk individuals. These tools are described in further detail in the Diagnosis section. Talk with your health care team about the screening options.

  • Hereditary syndromes. Certain hereditary syndromes are present in families that significantly increase family members' risk of pancreatic cancer, as well as other types of cancer. These include the following:

    People with the following inherited conditions may also have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer:

  • Chronic pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas. It is typically a painful pancreatic disease. Some research suggests that having chronic pancreatitis may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

  • Chemicals. Exposure to certain chemicals, such as pesticides, benzene, certain dyes, and petrochemicals, may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

  • Bacteria. A common bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, also called H. pylori, causes inflammation and ulcers in the stomach. Infection with H. pylori increases the risk of both stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer. However, the risk of developing pancreatic cancer is not as high as the risk of developing stomach cancer.

  • Hepatitis B infection. Hepatitis viruses infect the liver. One study has shown that a previous hepatitis B infection was twice as common in people with pancreatic cancer than in people without the cancer. More research is needed to learn more about this link.

  • Cirrhosis. Cirrhosis develops when liver cells are damaged and are replaced by scar tissue. Most cirrhosis in the United States is caused by drinking a lot of alcohol regularly. Other causes are viral hepatitis (see above), too much iron in the liver from a disease called hemochromatosis, and some other rare types of chronic liver disease. Cirrhosis most commonly results in liver cancer, but it can also cause pancreatic cancer.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what changes or medical problems pancreatic cancer can cause. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.