Pancreatic cancer occurs when a malignant tumor forms in the pancreas, a small organ located behind the stomach. The tumor grows uncontrollably and soon starts affecting other nearby organs.
There are several types of cancer of the pancreas. The most common is pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which starts in the part of the pancreas that makes digestive enzymes. It accounts for about 85 percent of the cases.
It is the fourth most common cause of death from cancer in the U.S., and the fifth most common in the UK. In fact, in 2012, it resulted in 330,000 deaths globally.
The mortality rate is high as this cancer is often diagnosed in advanced stages. Symptoms are present, but they can be very similar to less serious conditions and people often ignore them.
The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not yet well understood. However, several risk factors may increase your chances of developing this deadly cancer. As with all cancers, the risk factors vary from person to person.
Here are the top risk factors for pancreatic cancer.
Increasing age is a key risk factor, as it is for many cancers. About 90 percent of patients who develop this disease are older than 45 years of age.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), during 2005-2009, the pancreatic cancer incidence rate (per 100,000 people) in men was just 1.2 among those 35 to 39 years of age, whereas it was 100.5 among those age 85 and older.
In women, the rate was 1.0 among those 35 to 39 years of age as compared to 87.7 among those age 85 and older. The median age at diagnosis was 71.
This cancer is rare in younger people, however this does not mean than younger people are safe.
Cancer of the pancreas is 30 percent more common in men than women, according to ACS.
During 2005-2009, the incidence rate (per 100,000 people) was 13.6 for men and 10.5 for women. In fact, men are more likely than women to develop this cancer at every age after 35 years.
Experts believe that higher smoking rates in men may be the reason behind it, at least in part. Smoking increases a person’s risk.
In the U.S., cancer of the pancreas is more common in the African-American population as compared to the white population.
According to ACS, the incidence and mortality rates are the highest among African-Americans. In fact, the incidence rates are higher in African-Americans at every age.
The lowest incidence rates are found in Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders. During 2005-2009, the incidence rate (per 100,000 people) was 15.3 for African-Americans, 11.6 for whites and just 8.8 for Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders.
The exact reason why African-Americans are more prone to this disease is not clear. However, it may be due to socioeconomic factors and smoking rates.
4. Family History
The risk of developing this deadly cancer increases if you have a family history of it. This risk is higher for people with a first-degree relative diagnosed with pancreatic cancer before age 50.
First-degree relatives mean a parent, brother, or sister. The risk is even greater if multiple family members are affected.
A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Cancer notes that a family history of pancreatic cancer can increase risk.
Even a family history of genetic syndromes can increase cancer risk. An inherited gene mutation, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma, may increase risk.
5. Excess Body Weight
Obesity also significantly increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the American Institute for Cancer Research, the risk is even higher among people who are obese from early adulthood.
Even people carrying extra weight around the waistline, even if they are not very overweight, are at a higher risk.
In a 2012 study published in the Annals of Oncology, researchers analyzed 23 prospective studies of body mass index (BMI) and pancreatic cancer risk with 9,504 cases and concluded that both general and abdominal fatness increase the risk of this cancer.
Excessive smoking is also linked to higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Carcinogens, harmful compounds found in tobacco products, cause inflammation of the pancreas as well as other damage to the organ. This preventable cause accounts for about 20 to 30 percent of cases.
In a 2012 study published in the Annals of Oncology, researchers analyzed data from 12 case-control studies, including 6,507 pancreatic cases and 12,890 controls, and confirmed that cigarette smoking is associated with a two fold increased risk of this cancer.
Moreover, the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and duration of smoking.