Risk Factors, Symptoms and Prevention

Risk Factors

Certain factors may increase the chance of developing pancreatic cancer, though these factors do not directly cause cancer. Some people with multiple risk factors never develop pancreatic cancer while others who do not have any risk factors do develop pancreatic cancer. Although some risk factors cannot be changed, such as a person’s age or family history, there are some things you can do to help lower your risk, such as not smoking.

The average person has approximately a 1 percent chance of developing pancreatic cancer. About 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are inherited through a genetic variant that increases the risk for cancer while the remaining 90 percent are not inherited.

Early detection is important, so be sure to talk with your doctor about your risk factors. They include:

  • Pancreatic cysts
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Smoking
  • Late-onset diabetes, especially Type 2 diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, especially in people who smoke)
  • Cirrhosis of the liver (scarring of the liver caused by long-term liver damage)
  • Age (generally 55 years and older)
  • Obesity
  • Race (more common in Black Americans than Asian Americans, Hispanics or whites)
  • Certain inherited genetic syndromes, including hereditary pancreatitis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome, hereditary breast-ovarian cancer (HBOC), hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome), von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, the familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM) and mutations in the BRCA1, BRCA2, PALB2, ATM and RABL3 genes

Learn more about risk factors.


Patients with early-stage pancreatic cancer might not show symptoms, making it difficult to detect early. Most symptoms develop when the cancer has advanced or spread to other organs. Symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice (a painless yellowing of the skin and in the whites of the eyes)
  • Pain in the upper or middle part of the abdomen and back
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Adult-onset diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Light-colored stool and general itchiness

Speak with your doctor if you are experiencing any new, unexplained or changing symptoms. These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, many of which are non-cancerous. Your doctor may check for those other possible conditions as well as for pancreatic cancer.

Learn more about symptoms.

Prevention, Genetic Testing and Biomarker Screening

Although most pancreatic cancers cannot be prevented, you can reduce your risk by limiting the alcohol you drink, maintaining a healthy diet and weight and avoiding tobacco and workplace chemical exposures.

All patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and their close family members can undergo genetic testing, which looks for potential inherited genetic variants that could have contributed to developing pancreatic cancer. Genetic counselors work with patients on a detailed family history analysis and genetic evaluation. Using state-of-the-art molecular tests, genetic counselors will arrange for testing of a sample of blood or saliva for certain changes in genes that may increase a person’s risk of developing pancreatic and possibly other cancers. Genetic counseling may be recommended if there is a family history of chronic pancreatitis, breast or ovarian cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, melanoma or multiple benign colon polyps.

Patients found to be at particularly high risk for pancreatic cancer, due to the presence of certain gene mutations identified during genetic screening or having two or more family members with pancreatic cancer, may qualify for pancreatic cancer screening. Screening may consist of annual imaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and/or magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) and an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). Newer tests such as biomarker screening could be a future option for people at high risk for cancer. Biomarker screening is the process of looking for disease through different markers in the blood in high-risk patients who don’t have symptoms or a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. It may detect pre-cancerous or early cancerous changes in the pancreas in hopes of diagnosing the cancer at an early, more treatable stage.

Learn more about genetic testing.

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