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While pancreatic cancer isn’t always hereditary, it can run in families.

Researchers have linked certain genes and gene mutations to pancreatic cancer, but only some of these genes are hereditary. According to estimates from the American Cancer Society (ACS), up to 10 percent of pancreatic cancers develop as a result of inherited genes.

A 2021 review also suggests inherited genes may help explain somewhere between 22 and 33 percent of your risk of pancreatic cancer. The review authors emphasize, though, that experts still have more to learn about the role genetic history plays in determining your risk.

If pancreatic cancer runs in your family, doctors may consider you at higher risk and recommend tests to help:

  • determine whether you have one of the known gene mutations
  • detect signs of cancer early on

These tests can lead to an earlier diagnosis, which may improve your treatment options and outlook.

In the United States, pancreatic cancer is responsible for around 3 percent of all cancer diagnoses and around 7 percent of all cancer deaths, according to statistics from the ACS.

A few more statistics from the National Cancer Institute:

  • In 2018, nearly 84,000 people in the United States had this type of cancer.
  • About 1.7 percent of people develop this cancer over the course of their life.

The ACS says that on average, your risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 64 — but certain factors, including genetic history, can affect this risk.

More often than not, pancreatic cancer doesn’t develop due to inherited genes. Again, groups like the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network estimate that hereditary pancreatic cancer, the type that runs in families, accounts for about 10 percent of pancreatic cancer cases.

In most cases, familial pancreatic cancers are pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas. According to a 2017 study, this type of pancreatic cancer is responsible for nearly 95 percent of all cases of pancreatic cancer.

Neuroendocrine tumors can also cause hereditary pancreatic cancer, but this is far less common. These tumors are responsible for about 1 to 2 percent of all pancreatic cancer cases.

The direct cause of pancreatic cancer can’t always be identified.

While experts have associated a number of gene mutations, both inherited and acquired, with pancreatic cancer, plenty of other risk factors exist.

Having risk factors for pancreatic cancer doesn’t automatically mean you’ll develop this cancer. Connect with a doctor or other healthcare professional (HCP) to discuss your individual risk level.

Inherited genetic syndromes associated with this disease include:

  • ataxia telangiectasia, caused by inherited mutations in the ATM gene
  • familial (or hereditary) pancreatitis, usually due to mutations in the PRSS1 gene
  • familial adenomatous polyposis, caused by a defective APC gene
  • familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome, due to mutations in the p16/CDKN2A gene
  • hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, caused by BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome, the result of a defect in the p53 gene
  • Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer), usually caused by defective MLH1 or MSH2 genes
  • multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 1, caused by a faulty MEN1 gene
  • neurofibromatosis, type 1, due to mutations in the NF1 gene
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, caused by defects in the STK11 gene
  • Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, the result of mutations in the VHL gene

“Familial pancreatic cancer” means it runs in a particular family. This could mean:

  • at least two first-degree relatives (parent, sibling, or child) have had pancreatic cancer
  • three or more relatives on the same side of the family have pancreatic cancer
  • there’s a known family cancer syndrome plus at least one family member with pancreatic cancer

Other conditions that can increase pancreatic cancer risk include:

Other risk factors include:

  • Age. More than 80 percent of pancreatic cancers develop in people between the ages of 60 and 80.
  • Gender. Men have a slightly higher risk than women.
  • Race. Black Americans have a higher risk than white Americans.
  • Ethnicity. Pancreatic cancer is more common among people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

Lifestyle factors can also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer:

  • Smoking. Smoking cigarettes doubles your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco products also raise your risk.
  • Obesity. Having obesity raises the risk of pancreatic cancer by about 20 percent.
  • Heavy exposure to chemicals. Exposure to some chemicals used in the metalworking and dry-cleaning industries can raise your risk.

The pancreas, a vaguely fish-shaped organ that sits behind your stomach, helps your body digest food by:

  • making enzymes that help break fats, starches, and sugars down and transform them into energy your body can use
  • producing hormones important for digestion, including insulin, gastrin, amylin, and glucagon

Pancreatic cancer develops when cells in your pancreas begin to multiply and grow irregularly, leading to tumors and other cancerous growths. Since the location of the pancreas makes it difficult to detect pancreatic cancer in the early stages, you may not notice symptoms until the cancer has grown and begun spreading to other areas of your body.

As the cancer advances, signs and symptoms may include:

If you have signs of jaundice, you’ll want to make an appointment with a doctor or other HCP as soon as possible. This could be the first obvious sign of pancreatic cancer, though it can also develop with hepatitis and other serious health conditions.

Your doctor or other HCP will need to take a thorough medical history and conduct a physical examination. They may also recommend diagnostic tests, including:

  • Imaging tests. Ultrasound, CT scans, MRI, and PET scans can be used to create detailed pictures to look for abnormalities of your pancreas and other internal organs.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound. In this procedure, a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) is passed down your esophagus and into your stomach to view your pancreas.
  • Biopsy. They will insert a thin needle through your abdomen and into the pancreas to get a sample of the suspicious tissue. A pathologist will examine the specimen under a microscope to determine if the cells are cancerous.

They can test your blood for tumor markers that are associated with pancreatic cancer. But they generally won’t use this test as a reliable diagnostic tool. Rather, it can help them assess how well your treatment is working.

There’s no routine screening test for people at average risk of pancreatic cancer.

You might be considered at increased risk if you have:

If so, your doctor or other HCP may order blood testing to screen for gene mutations associated with pancreatic cancer. These tests can tell you if you have the mutations, but not if you have pancreatic cancer. Keep in mind, too, that having the gene mutations doesn’t mean you will develop pancreatic cancer.

They may also recommend other tests, such as an endoscopic ultrasound or MRI, to help detect cancer in the early stages if you have a higher risk.

Whether you’re at average or high risk, symptoms such as abdominal pain and weight loss don’t always mean you have pancreatic cancer. These symptoms can happen with a variety of health conditions, and only a doctor or other HCP can provide the correct diagnosis.

After diagnosis, the cancer needs to be staged according to how far it has spread. Pancreatic cancer is staged from 0 to 4, with 4 being the most advanced. This helps to determine your treatment options, which may include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

For treatment purposes, pancreatic cancer can also be staged as:

  • Resectable. It appears that the tumor can be surgically removed in its entirety.
  • Borderline resectable. Cancer has reached nearby blood vessels, but it’s possible the surgeon can totally remove it.
  • Unresectable. It can’t be completely removed in surgery.

Your doctor or other HCP will consider this, along with your complete medical profile, to help decide on the best treatments for you.

Your family history may not make up the biggest portion of your risk for pancreatic cancer, but it’s still an important factor to consider.

If any of your close relatives have pancreatic cancer, discussing this family history with a doctor or other HCP is a good option. They can offer more information about screening options and help you explore potential steps toward reducing other risk factors.