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What causes pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in your pancreas grow uncontrollably. It’s not clear why this happens. When enough of the cells grow out of control, they form a tumour. Most pancreatic cancers begin in the ducts of the pancreas. This is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma or pancreatic exocrine cancer.

Cancer can also form in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. This is called islet cell cancer or pancreatic endocrine cancer.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors

Nobody knows why any one person gets pancreatic cancer. But you have a higher than average risk of developing pancreatic cancer if:

  • you smoke
  • you are over the age of 65 you are overweight
  • you have chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
  • you have diabetes
  • you have had pancreatic cancer before
  • you have a family member who has had pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer or colon cancer
  • your diet includes large proportions of meats, cholesterol fried foods and nitrosamines
  • you have inherited a cancer syndrome such as a breast cancer syndrome, a multiple mole melanoma syndrome, Lynch syndrome and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.

While some of these risk factors for pancreatic and other cancers can’t be avoided, some can.

Diet and pancreatic cancer

People who eat a lot of meat (including processed meat), cholesterol and fried foods have a higher than average risk of pancreatic cancer. People who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables have a lower than average risk of pancreatic cancer.

The vitamin folate (called folic acid when it’s in a tablet or capsule supplement) may also reduce your risk. Folate is found in fresh leafy green vegetables.

Smoking and pancreatic cancer

Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers, and do so at an earlier age. If you are a smoker, you should consider quitting. If you stop smoking, your risk of developing pancreatic cancer drops to nearly normal for your age.

Last reviewed: April 2015

Need more information?

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Pancreatic cancer - myDr.com.au

There are many types of pancreatic cancer. Each requires different treatment and has a different outlook for survival. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

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For an explanation of the pancreas and the words exocrine and endocrine, please see the description under "What is the pancreas?" in Pancreatic diseases.

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CA 19-9 is used to help tell the difference between cancer of the pancreas or bile ducts and other conditions; CA 19-9 is used to monitor response to pancreatic cancer treatment and to watch for recurrence.

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What is pancreatic cancer? Find out about the symptoms, causes, treatment options and more. Get the facts from Cancer Council here.

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