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.
Pancreatic cancer risk is higher in people who have diabetes. This risk is even higher in those who have had diabetes for more than 5 years. As well as being a risk factor, diabetes can be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
A 2011 meta-analysis of cohort studies published in the European Journal of Cancer strongly supports that diabetes is associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer in both males and females. The study also considers diabetes as both an early manifestation and an etiologic factor of pancreatic cancer.
Diabetes also increases the risk of liver, endometrial, colorectal, breast and bladder cancer. Plus, common problems associated with diabetes, such as high insulin levels, high blood sugar levels and inflammation, also increase cancer risk.
8. High Alcohol Intake
There is also an association with heavy alcohol consumption and higher risk of pancreatic cancer. The risk may be even higher in people who smoke as well as drink heavily.
A 2012 study published in the Annals of Oncology notes that abstainers and occasional drinkers are not at an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, while there is a positive association between heavy alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer risk.
A person is considered a heavy drinker if he or she drinks more than three glasses of any alcoholic drink a day.
9. Chronic Inflammation of the Pancreas (Pancreatitis)
Pancreatitis, which causes inflammation of the pancreas, can also increase the risk of this deadly cancer. Chronic pancreatitis is very common in people who drink a lot.
Several autoimmune disorders as well as hereditary factors can also cause pancreatitis. Symptoms of pancreatitis include inflammation of the pancreas, severe abdominal pain, and nausea and vomiting during the pain.
A 2012 study published in the Annals of Oncology notes that pancreatitis is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer and a relatively small proportion of this cancer might be avoided if pancreatitis could be prevented.
The risk may be higher for people who suffer from pancreatitis as well as smoke or have diabetes.
10. Unhealthy Diet
High intake of red meat (beef, lamb and pork) as well as processed meat (sausage, ham, bacon, salami and burgers) is another possible risk factor.
A 2012 finding from a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Cancer notes that red meat and processed meat consumption is associated with pancreatic cancer risk. However, further studies are needed.
High intake of fried foods and nitrosamines-containing foods like cheese products and processed meat may also increase risk of developing this cancer.
Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Pancreatic Cancer
As experts are not sure exactly what causes cancer of the pancreas, there is no sure way to prevent it. However, there are some ways to reduce your risk of this disease. There are certain risk factors, such as smoking and unhealthy diet, that you can control.
1. Stop Smoking
Smoking is one of the most important avoidable risk factors. By quitting smoking, you can lower your risk of developing this cancer to a great extent.
To quit smoking, you can get help from support groups, medications and nicotine-replacement therapy. Ask your doctor to help you quit smoking.
2. Maintain a Healthy Weight
If you are overweight, take steps to lose weight. Opt for a slow and steady weight-loss goal and be realistic. A weight-loss program that includes daily exercise, a healthy diet, smaller portions and sound sleep can help you lose weight. You can always get help from experts to develop a realistic plan to achieve your goal.
Those having healthy weight should work hard to maintain it.
3. Do Physical Exercise Daily
Regular physical exercise is good for your overall health, and it may even cut your pancreatic cancer risk by helping you control your weight. Any kind of physical activity, including 30 minutes of walking daily, is good for your health.
4. Choose a Healthy Diet
A diet full of fresh fruits, green vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds may help reduce your risk of cancer. Also, foods containing folate are protective against pancreatic cancer.
Avoid high-calorie and high-fat foods as well as red and processed meat.
5. Drink in Moderation
It’s important to drink in moderation as excessive alcohol consumption contributes to tissue damage, leading to several types of cancer.
Aim to drink no more than two drinks a day if you are a man and one drink a day if you are a woman. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of table wine or 1½ ounces of 80-proof hard liquor.
6. Regular Health Checkups
It is important to follow any instructions given by your doctor and opt for regular health checkups, especially after age 50.
Although regular health checkups do not necessarily prevent cancer, they definitely enable early detection, when it is much easier to treat.
7. Avoid Exposure to Chemicals
You must also try to avoid exposure to harmful pesticides and other chemicals in order to reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer. Even avoid going to highly polluted and industrialized areas whenever possible.