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The #1 Cause of Pancreatic Cancer, Say Experts

This is what causes pancreatic cancer, according to science.

Pancreatic cancer affects around 62,000 Americans every year and is the tenth most commonly diagnosed cancer. There are two types of pancreatic cancer: Exocrine tumors (93%) and neuroendocrine tumors (7%). And they are often deadly: "Pancreatic cancer refers to the carcinoma arising from the pancreatic duct cells, pancreatic ductal carcinoma. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. The 5-year survival rate in the United States ranges from 5% to 15%. The overall survival rate is only 6%. Surgical resection is the only current option for a cure, but only 20% of pancreatic cancer is surgically resectable at the time of diagnosis," says the CDC. Certain lifestyle factors can make pancreatic cancer far more likely—so try and mitigate the risk of pancreatic cancer by addressing these causes. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Chronic Pancreatitis

alcoholic drinks

Chronic pancreatitis, often brought on by excessive smoking and alcohol use, is a major factor in causing pancreatic cancer, research shows. "There is a markedly increased risk of pancreatic cancer in patients with chronic pancreatitis, particularly among those with long-term alcohol use or hereditary pancreatitis," says Kathleen Berry, MD.

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Obesity—particularly in teenagers and young adults—has been linked to a higher chance of getting pancreatic cancer. "Obesity and diabetes are well-known risk factors for pancreatic cancer via chronic inflammation, excess hormones and growth factors released by body fat," says Aslam Syed, MD, a gastroenterology fellow at the Allegheny Health Network. "Previously, bariatric surgery has been shown to improve high blood sugar levels in diabetic patients and our research shows that this surgery is a viable way in reducing the risk of pancreatic cancer in this growing, at-risk group."

"Our results strongly suggest that to stop and eventually reverse recent increases in pancreatic cancer rates, we will need to do better in preventing excess weight gain in children and younger adults, an achievement which would help prevent many other diseases as well," says Eric J. Jacobs, PhD, senior scientific director of Epidemiology Research at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.

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There is mixed evidence whether diabetes leads to pancreatic cancer or pancreatic cancer leads to diabetes, but there is no doubt they are connected. "Although the evidence is mixed in terms of numbers, there are many studies which suggest that a small proportion of people with type 2 diabetes develop cancer of the pancreas within a year following their diabetes diagnosis," says Daniel Howarth, CNS, head of care at Diabetes UK.

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Chemical Exposure

A growing body of research is linking pancreatic cancer to environmental chemicals and heavy metals: "Several studies have linked [pancreatic cancer] incidence to work-related exposure of various chemicals and metals, such as pesticides, asbestos, benzene, chlorinated hydrocarbons, chromium, and nickel," according to an article published in Cancer Causes & Control. "These findings lend support for a role of environmental chemicals and heavy metals in the etiology of PC and further support the need for strategies to reduce exposure to these substances."

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The #1 Cause of Pancreatic Cancer: Smoking

Closeup of a pile of cigarettes

People who smoke cigarettes are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer compared to those who don't smoke. "One in five pancreatic cancers can be still attributed to smoking and most of that to current smoking, which is preventable," says Dr Maarit Laaksonen, senior lecturer at the Centre for Big Data Research in Health at University of New South Wales. "It's not just that you are putting yourself at risk, but you are putting yourself at risk for quite a long time after you quit smoking – I think that is one important message."

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When Should You See a Doctor?

Portrait of a male doctor with stethoscope.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of pancreatic cancer are as follows:

  • Upper abdominal pain that may spread to the back.
  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice).
  • Tiredness.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Light-colored poop.
  • Dark-colored pee.
  • Weight loss.
  • Blood clots in the body.
  • Itchy skin.
  • New or worsening diabetes.
  • Nausea and vomiting

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, share your concerns with your healthcare provider. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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