The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, but doctors have identified risk factors that include genetics and lifestyle. Though statistics suggest some correlations, it is not yet possible to say for certain what causes cancer of the pancreas, and people who fit the risk profile will not necessarily develop the condition.
Age as a Risk Factor
Older age brings specific health challenges, sometimes including pancreatic cancer. Figures show the disease is relatively uncommon in people under 50. Over 80% of cases occur between the ages of 60 and 80. These statistics suggest that something in the aging processes increases the risk of developing the disease.
Research shows that genes play a role in increasing the likelihood of pancreatic cancer. About ten percent of all cases can be linked to genetics, specifically family cancer syndrome. An individual may be diagnosed with family cancer syndrome if several people in their family are diagnosed with a specific type of cancer. The defect of the BRCA2 gene raises the risk of developing both breast and pancreatic cancer. Studies also show anyone whose father, son, or brother gets this disease is at greater risk.
The clear link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer is widely publicized. The connection with pancreatic cancer receives less public attention; a groundbreaking study found as many as 30% of cases could be linked to a smoking habit. A study in Sweden revealed that chewing tobacco could be just as dangerous as smoking when it comes to pancreatic cancer. There is currently no evidence that secondhand smoke increases the risk and, fortunately, the risk of developing cancer of the pancreas starts to decline once a person stops smoking.
Heavy Consumption of Alcohol
The possible connections between heavy drinking and pancreatic cancer remain relatively unknown outside of the medical profession. In most cases, heavy drinking is linked with chronic pancreatitis. Those who develop this condition have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer at a later date.
There is a lot of speculation over how diet may cause or prevent disease. There is some evidence that eating excessive amounts of processed and red meat increases the risk of pancreatic cancer in men, and high quantities of saturated fat may also trigger the disease. Eating plenty of green vegetables could have a preventative role, but the findings are inconclusive.
The Risk of Previous Disease
Statistics show that someone who has had another type of cancer is more likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared with those with no history of the disease. This could be a consequence of radiotherapy treatment, though this is still one of the best ways to treat cancer. The interplay of environmental and lifestyle factors, such as if a person drinks or smokes, makes it difficult to draw a direct link between previous disease and pancreatic cancer risk.
The list of health problems potentially facing people who are overweight includes pancreatic cancer. The more weight someone carries, the greater the amount of insulin their pancreas produces. Some scientists identify this as a possible disease trigger. Studies conducted within the last decade show that in ten percent of cases, pancreatic cancer could be linked to weight. Some studies also show that carrying excess fat around the waist is linked with a higher risk, even in people who are not overweight.
Dangers of a Sedentary Lifestyle
Research undertaken by the World Health Fund suggests that office jobs where the worker spends a long time in a stationary position increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In contrast, workers who need to be active most of the day have a greater degree of immunity. Curiously enough, people who sit for a long time at work but participate in physical activities outside of the office still appear to have a greater risk of cancer than those with active jobs. Other studies looking at physical activity and the risk of cancer of the pancreas show conflicting results. However, being physically active may lower the risk by preventing obesity.
Diabetes as a Risk Factor
Since diabetes is a disease of the insulin-producing pancreatic cells, it follows that people with type 2 diabetes face an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Although medical science has established this link, researchers are still unsure whether diabetes is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer or whether it’s an early symptom of the disease. In any case, they recommend that anyone over 50 who suddenly develops diabetes and experiences unexplained weight loss should be tested for pancreatic cancer.
A Link to Hepatitis
Medical researchers find people who have hepatitis B over a prolonged period are more likely than others to get pancreatic cancer. One study found that people with hepatitis have a 24% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The same link might also be true for hepatitis C, but the medical evidence is less persuasive. It is likely that further research will produce more conclusive evidence.