Pancreatic Cancer: What Are My Risks?

About 44,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States in 2012, making it the tenth most common cancer.  This cancer will affect 1-2% of people in the population.  Unfortunately, because it can be difficult to detect, it is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related death.  Most pancreatic cancers (95%) are adenocarcinomas.

Genetic counselor Victoria Raymond consults with John Carethers, M.D., and Tobias Else, M.D.

There are some known risk factors that increase risk for pancreatic cancer.  Some of these risk factors relate to health behaviors.  Smoking is strongly linked to pancreatic cancer risk, and up to 15% of cases may be directly related to cigarettes1.  Other health conditions that affect the pancreas, including diabetes and pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can also increase risk.

Family history is also an important risk factor for pancreatic cancer.  If you or a family member have had pancreatic cancer, it may be worth talking with your doctor about the rest of your family history.  Some clues to inherited risk include:

  • Other cancers in family members including:
    • Pancreatic cancer
    • Breast cancer
    • Ovarian cancer
    • Colon cancer
    • Endometrial cancer
  • Cancers diagnosed at earlier ages than typically expected
  • Personal or family history of chronic pancreatitis

In some families, genetic testing may help to determine the cause of pancreatic cancer risk.  There are several known hereditary conditions that can increase risk for pancreatic cancer.  Many of these known conditions also cause high risk for other types of cancer as well.  Some families have two or more relatives with pancreatic cancer, but do not have other cancers in the family or a known genetic risk factor.  This is described as Familial Pancreatic Cancer.  Researchers are still working to identify additional genes that may contribute to Familial Pancreatic Cancer risk.

Many people who have a family history of pancreatic cancer are interested in learning about options for screening for pancreatic cancer.  Screening for pancreatic cancer is worth consideration for certain patients.  Current tests used to screen for pancreatic cancer include endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and specialized MRI of the pancreas (MRCP).  There are risks and limitations to these tests, and patients at high risk may benefit from discussing their personal risk factors and a screening plan with specialists in the Cancer Genetics and Gastroenterology clinics.  The hope is that research in genetics and screening techniques will lead to earlier diagnosis and better survival for patients and at-risk family members.

Continue learning about pancreatic cancer treatment and cancer genetics at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center

  1. Am J Epidemiol. 2009 August 15; 170(4): 403–413