A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing cancer.

It is possible to develop pancreatic cancer with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your doctor what you can do to reduce your risk.

Some factors cannot be controlled, such as age, gender, or ethnicity. In general, risk increases for people over 50 years old. However, most people with pancreatic cancer are over 65 years old. Risk is nearly the same in men as in women. Other factors that may increase the chance of pancreatic cancer include:

Smoking is highly associated with pancreatic cancer. Smoking affects every cell in the body. Regular exposure to smoke and carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) cause irritation and damage to pancreatic cells. Irritation and damage can alter the DNA of the cells, increasing the rate of cellular turnover. The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with the number of years as a smoker and the number of cigarettes smoked. Smoking includes other forms of tobacco, including pipes, cigars, and smokeless.

People with current or a history of the following may have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer:

Excessive alcohol intake (more than 3 drinks a day) may not affect your risk alone. However, alcohol use increases the risk of or worsens health conditions, which in turn, increases pancreatic cancer risk. Talk to your doctor if you are having trouble controlling how much you drink.

Genetic mutations can be present at birth, while others may appear later in life. Pancreatic cancer is associated with different genetic syndromes. These include:

  • Familial multiple mole melanoma syndrome—associated with skin cancer
  • Lynch syndrome—genetic defect associated with colon cancer
  • Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome—associated with BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
  • Familial pancreatitis
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome—rare, but associated with cellular changes in the digestive tract

Pancreatic cancer, like many other types, tends to run in families. Having an immediate family member with a history of pancreatic cancer increases increases your risk of developing it yourself. The presence of colon or ovarian cancer within your family also affects pancreatic cancer risk.

African Americans have a greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer than Caucasians. People of Hispanic or Asian descent are less commonly affected.