What is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is a long, thin organ in the abdomen that produces digestive enzymes and hormones such as insulin. When the pancreas functions properly, it regulates how cells divide. With pancreatic cancer, the growth of cancer cells in the pancreas leads to the formation of a tumor, which impairs the organ’s ability to control the way cells divide and function properly.


Our doctors are working on developing screening regimens to detect early pancreatic cancer and precancerous lesions in high-risk patients with a family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic cancer syndromes.

We also belong to the Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection Consortium (PRECEDE), an international group of 35 centers that are working together to transform risk assessment and early detection and prevention of pancreatic cancer.

Risk Factors

The following factors may increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer:

Smoking/Tobacco Use
Smoking is a major risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Most pancreatic tumors are adenocarcinomas, which are two to three times more common in heavy smokers than in nonsmokers. 

Pancreatic cancer usually occurs in people older than age 55. However, pancreatic cancer can occur in younger people as well.

African Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than white, Hispanic, or Asian Americans. 

Genetic Factors
Certain mutations of genes, such as KRAS, BRCA1, and BRCA 2, are strongly associated with pancreatic cancer.

Family History of Pancreatic Cancer
An estimated five to ten percent of people with pancreatic cancer have one or more family members who have had the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, people with a family history of pancreatic cancer are nine times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than others. 

Evidence suggests that people with a body mass index of 30 or greater have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Researchers are studying whether physical activity and a low-fat diet can lower this risk. 

Having type 2 diabetes may increase a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer. In some people, new onset diabetes can be caused by pancreatic cancer.

Chronic Pancreatitis
Chronic inflammation of the pancreas, especially in people who smoke, may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.  However, most people with pancreatitis do not develop pancreatic cancer.

Cirrhosis of the Liver
Liver cirrhosis, or scarring, caused by hepatitis or alcohol use increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Environmental Factors
Exposure to carcinogens such as asbestos, pesticides, dyes, and petrochemicals may be linked to pancreatic cancer.

Benign and Precancerous Pancreatic Lesions
Advances in imaging technology have dramatically increased the number of small lesions that are found in the pancreas. Most of these lesions are identified during imaging for another condition. Some of these lesions are benign (noncancerous) and are unlikely to cause symptoms or shorten a person’s life. Others are precancerous and may go on to develop into malignant tumors.