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Habits Secretly Increasing Your Pancreatic Cancer Risk, Say Medical Experts

Experts warn these four bad habits are increasing your risk of pancreatic cancer.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Pancreatic cancer affects 3 percent of the American population and it's one of the deadliest forms of cancer because early detection is rare. The American Cancer Society states, "Pancreatic cancer is hard to find early. The pancreas is deep inside the body, so early tumors can't be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams. People usually have no symptoms until the cancer has become very large or has already spread to other organs." While genetics and age do play a role in increasing the risk, so do unhealthy habits that can be avoided. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 15 years of direct patient care experience who shares what bad habits are growing your chance of pancreatic cancer. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Should People Know About  Pancreatic Cancer?

Doctor in white medical lab coat points ballpoint pen on anatomical model of human or animal pancreas

Marchese says, "The pancreas has a critical role in digestion by producing the fluids necessary to break down food into usable molecules and releasing hormones that maintain blood sugar. The most common form of pancreatic malignancy occurs in the duct between the liver and pancreas, known as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Traditional treatment methods are limited for pancreatic cancer, with surgery being the best option if cancer is caught early. Targeted treatments, such as immunotherapy, will likely become more widespread as research continues."


Why is the Survival Rate Low for Pancreatic Cancer?

woman in bed suffering from cancer

Marchese explains, "Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed during its later stages because symptoms aren't apparent until other organs are involved. Based on how far cancer has spread, treatment options might include traditional chemotherapy, surgery, radiation or a combination of approaches. However, pancreatic cancer is so fatal because pancreatic tumors notoriously respond poorly to treatment. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality of all primary cancers, with an overall 5-year relative survival rate of 11%. The 5-year survival improves to 42% for patients with limited-stage progression. About 70% of pancreatic cancer patients live less than one year after diagnosis."



no smoking sign

"Tobacco use is not only one of the more significant risk factors for pancreatic cancer, but it's also one of the most avoidable," Marchese emphasizes. "Inflammation from cigarette carcinogens leads to fibrotic tissue in the pancreas and the development of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, which is more likely for people with certain genetic risk factors. Smoking nearly doubles the risk of pancreatic cancer compared to those who have never smoked. The American Cancer Society reports that about 25% of pancreatic cancer cases are caused by cigarette smoking, but cigars and smokeless tobacco can also contribute to this risk." 


Red Meat

slabs of different cuts of red meat on wooden cutting board

Marchese states, "Researchers have noted a positive correlation between pancreatic cancers and red or processed meats like pork and beef. The extent of the risk is still under investigation, and the exact cause remains unknown. An analysis of nearly a dozen studies found that an increase in red meat consumption of 120 g per day (about a quarter-pound burger or four slices of bacon) was associated with a 30% increased risk of pancreatic cancer in men but not women. The study also found that for every increase of 50g of processed meat per day, the overall relative risk increased by 19% for men and women."



drinking alcohol

"Heavy alcohol use can lead to chronic pancreatitis, a long-term inflammatory process in the pancrea," says Marchese. "Over time, the increased inflammation causes scar tissue and cell damage, increasing the risk of pancreatic cancer. Your body converts alcohol into acetaldehyde which can damage DNA, and as your cells try to repair the damage, errors in the process can lead to tumor formation. Heavy drinking can lead to many other severe issues, such as hypertension, stroke and heart disease, as well as other cancers in the mouth, throat, liver, colon, rectal and breast."


Lack of Exercise

Woman sitting at the gym with pink pilates ball.

Marchese shares, "An inactive lifestyle can lead to many health issues, such as heart disease and cancer. Very overweight people are about 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. The risk is even higher for those who gain significant weight after adulthood or carry much of it around the waistline, an indicator of visceral fat which can damage organs. Low activity levels can also lead to type 2 diabetes, another risk factor for pancreatic cancer."  

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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