What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

November 18, 2022, is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. This day was created to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer, and to encourage people to support the individuals and families who are dealing with it. But what causes pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs in the cells within the tissue of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach and above the small intestine. Its function is to release enzymes that help digest the food you eat and to produce hormones that help regulate your blood sugar. 

Pancreatic cancer is somewhat uncommon, accounting for only about 2% of all cancers that are diagnosed. The prognosis for patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is generally not very positive; the five-year survival rate is only about 5-10%. However, patients rarely exhibit any symptoms until the disease has progressed significantly, meaning that it is not diagnosed until it reaches Stage IV and has metastasized to other parts of the body. Consequently, the low survival rate is likely due to the lateness of the diagnosis; if pancreatic cancer is diagnosed in earlier stages, the prognosis is much better.

The hallmark of all cancers is that particular cells, whether in the skin, the blood, or an organ like the pancreas, start to reproduce atypically and/or uncontrollably. All cells reproduce naturally to replace dying cells, but, in cancer, reproduction does not stop; even more, cancerous cells often display an uncanny ability to thrive.

Physicians are generally able to identify the specific cells that have become cancerous; however, they usually do not know exactly what triggers the mutations that lead to cancerous cell reproduction. That said, research has helped identify certain risk factors for many types of cancers, including pancreatic cancer.  Consequently, while one cannot pinpoint a specific “cause” of pancreatic cancer if you are aware of the risk factors, you can take extra care in the choices you make to minimize your risks. 

If you find that you possess many of the risk factors for pancreatic cancer (some of which are beyond your control), get periodic exams and express your concerns to your healthcare provider. If you can catch pancreatic cancer early, you can expect the prognosis for long-term survival to be vastly improved. 

Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer

Statistics indicate that certain people are more likely to get pancreatic cancer. Remember: these factors are not determinative, but they can help you assess your particular risk.

Smoking: About 25% of the people who get pancreatic cancer are smokers, and cigarette smokers are at least two times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.

Age and Sex: Men are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women, and in both sexes, cases are usually diagnosed in people who are over 65. However, since most diagnoses occur when the cancer is already at Stage IV, it is important to remember that it can occur at any age.

Medical Conditions: Pancreatic cancer is more likely to occur in people who have diabetes, and in people who have had a history of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Pancreatitis occurs more frequently in people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

Genetic Factors/Family History: People who have certain genetic mutations and genetically inherited syndromes are more likely to get pancreatic cancer. These can include the BRCA-1 or -2 mutation, cystic fibrosis, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM), and other conditions. Pancreatic cancer appears more often in African Americans than in Americans of Asian, Mexican, or Caucasian descent. If you are concerned about whether you have any of the genetic conditions or predispositions that may make it more likely that you would get pancreatic cancer, ask your doctor if you can obtain a genetic screening. If someone in your direct family has had pancreatic cancer, it is more likely that you may get it, and this is often due to one of these genetic conditions.

Other Risk Factors: Being obese, consuming a diet with too much red meat, repeated exposure to chemicals, and even gum disease have been shown to be risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment and Support

Being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can be a dismaying experience, and we fully understand the anxiety that our patients go through when they begin to undertake their cancer journeys.  But we also know that researchers are making great strides in finding effective therapies for all types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. 

At Beacon Clinic, our goal is to provide complete support to our cancer patients, not only in terms of their course of treatment but in other aspects of their lives that can be affected. We assist our patients in crafting treatment plans and offer many in-house treatments, such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapies. We work closely with radiation and surgical oncologists here in North Idaho, as well as with top-rated cancer centers across the country.

We also offer, or coordinate referrals for, several supportive services, such as nutritional consultation, financial counseling, rehabilitative services, and palliative care. We are also able to offer our patients the opportunity to participate in exciting clinical trials that may be available if they are eligible based on the study criteria. 

Overall, our goal is to provide comprehensive care of the whole person. We do it by working with each patient individually, knowing that everyone’s medical as well as personal situation is unique to them alone. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, contact Beacon Clinic today to obtain more information about how we can support you. And join us in raising awareness for pancreatic cancer on November 18th and supporting those cancer warriors and loved ones impacted by it.