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Am I At Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer isn’t one of the more common cancers; with approximately 60,000 Americans diagnosed each year, it accounts for just 3% of all cancers. The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not fully known.

Yet there are certain risk factors that increase your likelihood of getting pancreatic cancer. If someone in your family has recently been diagnosed, get to know the identified risk factors, as well as possible tests and treatment options.

There’s so much information available on the topic of pancreatic cancer, so it’s important to find a trustworthy source that you can rely on for content on risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment for this disease.

Causes of pancreatic cancer

 The pancreas is a six-inch-long gland — about the size of your hand — that’s shaped somewhat like a flat carrot. It’s nestled deep in your abdomen and surrounded by your stomach, liver, small intestine, spleen, and gallbladder. Its location makes it difficult to detect tumors when pressing on the abdomen.

The pancreas has two main roles — it makes enzymes for digestion and hormones that control blood sugar levels:

  • As part of the endocrine system, the pancreas secretes insulin and glucagon, two main hormones that are vital to regulating your blood sugar levels.
  • And as part of the exocrine system, the pancreas secretes lipase, amylase and chymotrypsin, all enzymes that work with bile from your liver and gallbladder to help break down food for proper digestion and absorption.

There are many conditions that affect the pancreas, and pancreatic cancer is among them. It’s caused by cancerous cells which develop in the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors

​​The American Cancer Society estimates that a person’s average lifetime risk of getting pancreatic cancer is 1 in 64. But those chances can be affected by a number of risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer. There are some risk factors you can change and others you can’t.

Pancreatic risk factors you can change:

  • Smoking and other tobacco use: This is one of the biggest risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer. Some estimates have found more than 25% of pancreatic cancer deaths are due to smoking. Your risk drops significantly when you stop smoking.
  • Being overweight: People who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30 have a 20% increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Those who have excessive abdominal fat may have an increased risk regardless of whether they’re obese.
  • Diabetes: Most of this risk factor is found in people with type 2 diabetes, which doubles your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Exposure to certain chemicals: Excessive exposure to some workplace chemicals, such as those used in the dry-cleaning and metalworking industries, can increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: This means long-term inflammation of the pancreas. It is usually caused by heavy smoking, excessive alcohol use, or both.

Pancreatic risk factors you can’t change:

  • Age: The chance of developing pancreatic cancer increases as you age. Most people who are diagnosed are between ages 60 and 74.
  • Gender: Pancreatic cancer tends to be more common in men than women, though the reasons for this aren’t fully understood.
  • Race: Studies have shown that African-Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to people of Asian, Caucasian or Hispanic descent. The reasons why aren’t fully understood.
  • Ashkenazi Jewish background: This group has a higher incidence, possibly because 1% of this population of people has the BRCA2 gene, a breast cancer gene mutation.
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer: If you’re a child, parent or sibling of someone who’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at a young age, you have an increased risk of developing it as well. If you have two first degree family members with pancreatic cancer, your lifetime risk may be as high as 8%.
  • Genetic factors: Approximately 10% of cases are related to a gene the person was born with, though some inherited mutations are associated with a high risk of getting other types of cancer.

Tests and screening for pancreatic cancer

Because of the location of the pancreas, it can be very difficult to detect tumors when feeling the abdomen. However, there are some symptoms you may notice:

  • Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • A new diabetes diagnosis or existing diabetes that’s become difficult to control

If you’ve noticed these symptoms, talk with your doctor, who will ask you about your symptoms and your medical history. Your doctor may schedule you for the following tests to determine if it’s pancreatic cancer:

  • Imaging tests. These tests are designed to help your doctors visualize your internal organs. These tests may include computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and, sometimes, positron emission tomography (PET) scans.
  • An endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). This is a thin, flexible tube with both a camera and a miniaturized ultrasound probe at the tip that is passed down through your esophagus into your stomach and small intestine. From there, the most detailed images possible of the pancreas can be obtained — better than a CT scan or MRI.
  • Tissue biopsy. The only way to know for certain that it’s pancreatic cancer is to obtain a small sample of tissue cells from the pancreas. This is usually done during an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). It is called a fine needle aspiration or biopsy (FNA/B).
  • Blood tests. While it is not always the case, sometimes blood tests can help with finding out if you have pancreatic cancer. These blood tests may include liver function tests and tumor markers.

Treatments for pancreatic cancer

It can be overwhelming to receive a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. However, there are a number of treatment options available .

If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, trust the team at Capital Health Cancer Center. In early 2021, the National Pancreas Foundation (NPF) recognized Capital Health Cancer Center as an NPF Center of Excellence for treating pancreatic cancer. For more than a decade, the Capital Health Endoscopy Center at Hopewell has been recognized by the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE) for being one of the best endoscopy units in the world with its Endoscopy Unit Recognition Program (EURP) designation.

The cancer center earned this designation for its focus on the multidisciplinary treatment of pancreatic cancer — treating the whole patient — with a goal of achieving the best possible outcomes and an improved quality of life. Learn more about our commitment to the whole patient. Schedule your appointment by calling 609-537-6363.