About Pancreatic Cancer

What should people know about cancer of the pancreas?

The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. It contains two different types of glands: exocrine glands, which make pancreatic juices containing enzymes that help break down food, and endocrine glands, which make insulin and other hormones. These hormones enter the bloodstream and help the body use or store the energy that comes from food.

Each year in New York State, about 3,600 individuals are diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. Almost 2,800 individuals in New York die from this disease each year.

Who gets cancer of the pancreas?

The risk of developing cancer of the pancreas increases with age. Nearly 90% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over the age of 55. In New York State, cancer of the pancreas occurs more frequently in Whites and Blacks compared to Asians.

What factors increase risk for developing pancreatic cancer?

At this time, the causes of pancreatic cancer are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Smoking. Smoking is the most important risk factor for pancreatic cancer. People who smoke are about twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop cancer of the pancreas. Heavy smokers are most at risk. Scientists believe that smoking is responsible for about 20% of pancreatic cancers.
  • Overweight or obesity. There is an estimated 20% increased risk of pancreatic cancer in those with obesity.
  • Diabetes. People with diabetes are more likely to develop cancer of the pancreas.
  • Hereditary conditions. People with certain inherited conditions due to genetic changes (von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, familial pancreatitis, hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer, familial melanoma, familial breast cancer) are at increased risk for pancreatic cancer. Scientists believe that as many as 10% of pancreatic cancers are due to inherited conditions.
  • Family history. People with close relatives (parents, brothers/sisters, children) who have had cancer of the pancreas are at increased risk for the disease.
  • Personal health history. Individuals with a history of gallbladder disease, pernicious anemia, pancreatitis, peptic ulcer surgery or cystic fibrosis are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Heavy Alcohol Use. Some studies have shown a link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer.

What other risk factors for cancer of the pancreas are scientists studying?

Scientists are studying whether a diet high in fat (especially animal fat) or heavy drinking of alcoholic beverages may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Some studies have found that diets high in fruits and vegetables (particularly those containing vitamin C, folate and lycopene) may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, but other studies did not find such a link. The role of diet and obesity in relation to pancreatic cancer is still under study. Other potential risk factors being studied include reproductive factors such as having many children, environmental exposures (heavy metals, chlorinated drinking water), workplace exposures (chlorinated hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and hormones produced in the digestive system (insulin, gastrin).

Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of pancreatic cancer.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting pancreatic cancer?

To help reduce the risk of getting pancreatic cancer:

  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

The following may help reduce the risk of developing cancer:

  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended cancer screenings.

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