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What causes pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas grow uncontrollably. It is 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.

Cancer can also form in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer risk factors

You have a higher than average risk of developing pancreatic cancer if:

  • you are over the age of 65
  • 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.

These are risk factors you cannot control. However, you may be able to reduce other risk factors by modifying your lifestyle and diet. For example:

  • If you are overweight, losing weight will lower your risk.
  • If your diet contains a large proportion of meats or fried foods, reducing these will help.
  • If you have high cholesterol, you should reduce it.
  • If you smoke, quitting will lower your risk.

Diet and pancreatic cancer

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

The vitamin folate (called folic acid when it comes 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 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers, and they 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: July 2017

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