Although pancreatic cancer is not among the most commonly diagnosed cancers, it is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. It is often difficult to recognize the symptoms of pancreatic cancer in the early stages and once the cancer spreads, survival rates are low.
Although anyone can be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, there are some factors that put certain people in a higher risk category than others.
So, what about you? As with all cancers, it’s important to know your risks for pancreatic cancer so you and your doctor can make more informed lifestyle and health decisions.
Step #1: Know where you stand.
The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Pancreatic cancer is most commonly diagnosed in patients between 60-80 years of age. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 71, and most patients are diagnosed older than 45.
Approximately only 5-10 percent of pancreatic cancers are inherited. For some of these cases, the specific genetic cause may not always be identified.
You are considered to have a family history of pancreatic cancer if at least two first-degree relatives or three members of the family have pancreatic cancer.
You are considered to have a family history of pancreatic cancer if at least two first-degree relatives or three members of the family have pancreatic cancer. Your risk of developing pancreatic cancer will increase exponentially as the number of first-degree relatives who have been diagnosed increases. And, if those relatives have been diagnosed younger than age 55, your risk increases even more.
There are specific genes or genetic syndromes that have strong associations with the risk of pancreatic cancer. These include:
- Hereditary pancreatitis (PRSS1, SPINK1)
- Familial atypical multiple mole and melanoma syndrome
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndromes (BRCA1, BRCA 2, PALB2)
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (STK11)
- Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome)
- Ataxia-telangiectasia (ATM)
- Familial pancreatic cancer (PALB2)
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome
Smoking is one of the most well-known risk factors for pancreatic cancer. It increases your risk of cancer development by 50-75 percent, and this risk continues at least a decade after you stop smoking. Use of smokeless tobacco products, pipes and cigars is also associated with increased risk.
If you have chronic pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, research suggests that you have an increased lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer. Additionally, certain medical disorders such as cystic fibrosis, or hereditary pancreatitis, lead to episodes of recurrent pancreatitis or chronic pancreatitis. This has also been linked to an increased risk.
Diabetes increases the risk of pancreatic cancer by at least 30 percent, although the cause is not certain. Even with appropriate control and management, this risk will continue for at least 20 years after diagnosis.
Overweight and obesity
There is a positive link between increased body mass index (BMI) and pancreatic cancer. People who are obese or overweight have an increased risk of being diagnosed with and dying from pancreatic cancer.
Step #2: Talk to your doctor.
So, you’ve identified your individual risks for developing pancreatic cancer. If you think you might be at high risk, don’t panic — talk to your doctor about your concerns. Having an open, honest conversation with your doctor about your risks (those you can change and those you can’t) will help you work together toward better health.
Having an open, honest conversation with your doctor about your risks will help you work together toward better health.
If you are at high risk, you may qualify for the Familial Pancreatic Cancer Risk Assessment Program at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas (214-820-3535) and Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth (817-922-1790). Through this program, screening can help you understand your genetics, your risk level and that of your family members, and what screenings might be helpful for you.
Step #3: Make your health a priority.
Bottom line: Pay attention your risk factors and your family history, but even more importantly, pay attention to your health. Minor symptoms like weight loss, back pain and upset stomach can be early signs of pancreatic cancer. Talk to your doctor if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
Don’t have a doctor? Find one near you.
About the author
Hoylan Fernandez, MD, MPH, is a transplant surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center. Dr. Fernandez specializes in abdominal transplant surgery, live donor liver transplantation, auto islet cell transplant and hepatobiliary surgery. She began her medical career at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. She completed a research fellowship at the University of Chicago in the department of General Surgery before going on to complete her internship and residency at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.