Pancreatic Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on June 17, 2024
3 min read

Pancreatic cancer happens when tumors form in your pancreas, an organ behind your stomach that helps in digestion.

About 66,400 people in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2024. As with many types of cancer, the causes of pancreatic cancer are mysterious. Some risk factors have been identified, but the story is far from complete.

Pancreatic cancer happens when DNA in a cell in your pancreas is damaged. A single cancer cell grows and divides rapidly, becoming a tumor that doesn’t go along with your body’s usual boundaries. Without treatment, cells from the tumor spread through your blood or lymph system.

No one knows exactly how the cell DNA is damaged. When doctors remove pancreatic cancers and analyze them, they usually find certain changes in genes called mutations. Other times, the mutations vary between people.

Your parents can pass along mutations that make you more likely to get pancreatic cancer. Doctors have linked the condition to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes as well as genes that cause colorectal cancer and other health problems. These mutations cause up to 10% of pancreatic cancer cases.

Many gene changes happen after you’re born. Sometimes, they change because you come into contact with chemicals like those in tobacco smoke. Other mutations happen at random as your cells copy your DNA and divide.

About 1 in 64 people will develop pancreatic cancer. This is the average risk. Any of these things can increase your risk:

  • Age. Your risk goes up as you get older. Over 80% of cases are in people between 60 and 80 years old.
  • Genetics. Five percent to 10% of people with pancreatic cancer have a close family member who also had it.
  • Diabetes. Most of this risk is in people who have type 2 diabetes.
  • Smoking. The more you smoke, the higher your risk. But 10 years after you quit, you have the same risk as someone who never smoked.
  • Obesity and inactivity. In a study of 88,000 nurses, those who had a body mass index(BMI, a measure of your height compared to your weight) higher than 30 were more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Those who exercised often were about half as likely to get pancreatic cancer as those who got no exercise at all.
  • Race. African American people are more likely to get pancreatic cancer than white people. This might be because of higher rates of other risk factors like diabetes and smoking.
  • Gender. Men have a higher pancreatic cancer risk than women, possibly because they’re also more likely to smoke.
  • Chronic pancreatitis. Heavy alcohol and tobacco use often cause this long-term inflammation.
  • High-fat diet. Some studies have linked pancreatic cancer to a diet high in fat and meat (especially smoked or processed meat). In other research, people lowered their risk by eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Lycopene and selenium. Studies have found that some people with pancreatic cancer had low levels of these nutrients. But there’s no definite link. You can get lycopene and selenium by eating lean meat and red or yellow vegetables.
  • Chemical exposure. Your risk might be higher if you work in the metalworking or dry cleaning industries and have contact with a lot of chemicals.

Getting rid of your risk factors for pancreatic cancer doesn’t mean you’ll never get it. But eating a healthy diet, keeping a healthy weight, and exercising often will improve your overall health and lower your risk of other problems.