Categories Other Cancers

Pancreatic Cancer: What Are the Causes?

It’s at the top of the list of cancers you don’t want to get, with survival rates in the single digits.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cancer for men and the fifth most common found in women in the United States. It’s a killer but rarely develops before the patient reaches age 50. According to the Penn State College of Medicine, the disease is two to three times more prevalent in heavy smokers than it is in non-smokers. It’s not contagious.

Researchers cannot pinpoint a single reason why some people get pancreatic cancer. Little is actually known about the cause or causes of the disease. It appears to arise both in individuals with certain health patterns as well as those with no predisposition. Among the latter group is “Last Lecture” Prof. Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University, who succumbed to complications of the disease at age 47 less than 2 years after his 2006 diagnosis.

Individuals with chronic pancreatitis are at an elevated risk of developing this type of malignancy. Statistics show that males are at higher risk than females. They also suggest that individuals exposed to cancer-causing agents such as tobacco and those who eat a high fat but low fiber diet are at increased risk. Consuming foods with additives and having diabetes also increase a patient’s chances of developing pancreatic cancer. Penn State suggests that while no link has been proven, individuals who work with petroleum and some of the chemicals used in the dry cleaning industry should be careful to follow the respective safety guidelines.

Information from the Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins University details potential heredity links to contracting this type of cancer. Pancreatic cancer is considered a genetic disease, one caused by mutations in DNA. Some of the changes are inherited. Others develop after birth.

Inherited changes explain why pancreatic cancer occurs often in some families. Researchers attribute acquired changes to bad luck while cells are replicating or to exposure to carcinogens such as cigarette smoke.

The National Familial Pancreas Cancer Registry (NFPTR) currently lists more than 250 families with two or more members who are pancreatic cancer patients. Scientists have also identified a familial breast cancer gene known at BRCA2. Johns Hopkins researchers estimate that as many as 10 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer are caused by inherited defects in this gene. It’s found in about one percent of individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. This might explain the higher rate of the disease noted in Jewish individuals versus those of the Catholic or Protestant faiths. Testing is currently available for BRCA2 mutations.

Peutz-Jeghers syndrome is a rare heredity condition in which family members develop polyps in their small intestines that protrude from the normal intestinal surface plus pigmented spots on their lips. These individuals are at higher risk than normal for developing pancreatic cancer.

Increased risk has also been assigned to individuals with Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome. This is a rare hereditary condition in which the afflicted family members develop skin moles and melanomas.

Johns Hopkins reports that the Heredity Non-polyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC) syndrome affects perhaps 1 in 200 individuals. Marked by an inherited disposition to develop cancer of the colon, endometrium, stomach and ovaries, it puts patients at increased risk for pancreatic cancer.

Although heredity pancreatitis is rare, it usually causes chronic inflammation of the organ beginning at an early age. The gene for this condition, which also results in elevated risk for pancreatic malignancy, has been named the trypsinogen gene.

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