Pancreatic cancer is the 10th most common type of cancer among men in the United States and the ninth most common type of cancer among women in the country. While it is not the most common cancer, pancreatic cancer still accounts for about 3 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the nation and about 7 percent of all cancer-related deaths. The average lifetime risk of getting pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 64.
Understanding pancreatic cancer and its potential causes can contribute to more efficient and effective methods of treatment and prevention. What can cause pancreatic cancer? Read on to learn more.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer refers to any form of cancer that originates within the cells that make up the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ located deep in the abdomen, just behind the lower part of the stomach. It is responsible for producing enzymes that assist digestion and absorption of nutrients and most prominently produces the hormone insulin to control blood sugar levels.
While pancreatic cancer may affect several different cells within the pancreas, pancreatic adenocarcinoma is the most common type of this cancer. This starts in the exocrine cells lining the pancreatic duct. Exocrine cells make up most of the pancreas and form the exocrine glands and ducts within the organ. The exocrine glands are responsible for producing and releasing the enzymes that help with food digestion, particularly fats. A smaller percentage of pancreatic cancer cases affect the endocrine cells in the pancreas. These cells are responsible for synthesizing insulin and glucagon.
Pancreatic Cancer Causes
What is the one cause of pancreatic cancer? As with most forms of cancer, pancreatic cancer is caused primarily by a genetic mutation in the DNA. These mutations cause cells to grow abnormally and out of control, eventually forming into larger tissue masses known as tumors. Cancer cells can potentially break off of tumors and spread to nearby organs, or they can travel through the blood and lymph nodes into more distant areas. This process is known as metastasis.
Science still does not fully understand what causes the genetic mutations that lead to pancreatic cancer. The genes can be inherited from your parents or take effect over time. Exposure to certain environmental factors may contribute to the mutations, but they may also occur randomly.
About 10 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are caused by heredity or inheritance of genes. This means that if you have a close relative (a first-degree family member in particular) who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer yourself.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Risk factors refer to any personal or environmental factor that could increase your chance of developing pancreatic cancer. Some pancreatic cancer risk factors are things that you cannot change, like your age, race, and (as mentioned above) your family. However, there are some risk factors that you may be able to change to reduce your potential risk of pancreatic cancer development.
Smoking and Tobacco Usage
Tobacco usage is one of the most well-known risk factors for many types of cancer, particularly lung cancer. Smoking can also affect your chance of developing pancreatic cancer. In fact, it may be one of the most important pancreatic cancer risk factors. Smokers are almost twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared to those who have never smoked. An estimated 25 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are believed to be connected directly to cigarette smoking.
Cigars and non-smoking forms of tobacco may also increase your risk of pancreatic cancer. The good news is that a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer drops significantly as soon as a person quits smoking.
While the reason is not well known, pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes, particularly those with type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the more common form of diabetes. With type 2 diabetes, your body either does not produce enough insulin or resists the effect of insulin, which can contribute to blood sugar fluctuations that have a severe impact on your health.
While there is no cure for diabetes, knowing that it is a pancreatic cancer risk factor means that your doctor can regularly screen for the cancer, especially if you have other potential risk factors.
Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas. This occurs when the digestive enzymes in the pancreas become activated before they actually exit the organ. This irritates the cells and tissue within the pancreas, which can result in inflammation. Repeated cases of acute pancreatitis can eventually damage the pancreas and result in chronic cases. That constant inflammation and irritation can lead to scar tissue formation, along with cell mutations that can turn cancerous. Some cases of chronic pancreatitis have no known cause, but it is often connected with high alcohol consumption and smoking.
Workplace Exposure to Chemicals
Consistent exposure to certain chemicals and heavy metals may also increase your risk of pancreatic cancer. This is particularly common in dry cleaning and metal working industries. Some chemicals that may increase your risk include:
- Certain pesticides
Inherited Genetic Syndromes
It is possible to inherit a genetic mutation from your parents. Gene changes reportedly account for up to 10 percent of pancreatic cancer cases. These mutations may also increase your risk of other health problems. Some genetic mutations that may contribute to pancreatic cancer include:
- Hereditary breast cancer
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome
- Familial pancreatitis
- Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
- Lynch syndrome
Some of the gene mutations that cause these syndromes can be detected via genetic testing.
Although the above factors may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer, having one or several risk factors does not mean that you will necessarily get pancreatic cancer. Similarly, someone may not have any of these risk factors and still develop pancreatic cancer.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
The disease is rarely caught in the beginning stages of pancreatic cancer because it usually does not present any noticeable symptoms until it has spread to other organs or proceeded to more advanced stages. However, if you’re wondering what are the signs of pancreatic cancer to look for, they include:
- Abdominal pain that seems to radiate from or to your back
- A sudden loss of appetite
- Unintended weight loss
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes (known as jaundice)
- Dark urine
- Light stools
- Itchy skin
- Blood clots
- Nausea and vomiting
- An enlarged liver or gallbladder
- General fatigue
In rare cases, pancreatic cancer may cause diabetes or worsen existing cases of diabetes.
Effective pancreatic cancer treatment options depend on an early diagnosis. Essentially, when it comes to what is the survival rate for pancreatic cancer, the earlier you and your doctor catch the cancer, the better the outcome. While this particular cancer can be difficult to detect early, there are screening options available to those who have a family history of pancreatic cancer, present a known genetic syndrome, or otherwise have a heightened risk of developing the cancer. If you believe you are at risk of pancreatic cancer or show any pancreatic cancer symptoms, consult your doctor as soon as possible.