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Risk factors and symptoms

Risk factors

The underlying causes of PDAC are largely unknown and difficult to predict in any specific individual. Some factors, however, indicate a higher risk of developing the disease; that is, these risk factors are more often present in people who get pancreatic cancer than in people who do not.

About 1 in 62 people (1.6%) will develop pancreatic cancer during their lifetime. People with one or more of the following risk factors have a slightly higher risk:

  • Close relative with pancreatic cancer. 10% to 15% of people with pancreatic cancer have an immediate family member who also has/had it.
  • Genes. Germline mutations in BRCA2, PALB2, ATM, or PRSS1 are associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. Mutations in the p16/CDKN2A gene have also been linked to pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes. Patients diagnosed with type 2 diabetes after the age of 50 have a 6 to 8 times increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer within 1 to 3 years of diagnosis.
  • Smoking. Cigarette smoking increases the risk for pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity and inactivity. Obese individuals (body mass index, BMI, of 30 or higher) are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, according to a study of 88,000 nurses. Those who exercised frequently were about half as likely to get pancreatic cancer, compared to those who did not exercise at all.
  • Pancreatic cysts and chronic pancreatitis. People who have one or both of these conditions are at higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer.


National Cancer Institute. SEER data. Cancer Stat Facts: Pancreatic Cancer.
American Cancer Society. Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors.


Pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it is advanced and difficult to treat. In the majority of cases, symptoms develop only after the cancer has grown and begun to spread.

Almost all (~95%) of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells, called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), and are associated with these symptoms:

  • Jaundice: yellowing of skin and eyes from a buildup of bile in the blood, caused by a tumor blocking the duct that releases bile into the intestine
  • Dark urine and/or light-colored stools: caused by blockage of the bile duct
  • Abdominal and/or back pain: a dull ache in the upper abdomen radiating to the back, which may come and go
  • Bloating: a sense of early fullness with meals or an uncomfortable swelling in the abdomen
  • Nausea or indigestion
  • New-onset diabetes after the age of 50: patients with type 2 diabetes diagnosed within the last 3 years
  • Unexplained weight loss

Having any or all of these symptoms does not mean a person has pancreatic cancer. There are many other causes for these types of symptoms, which makes diagnosing PDAC challenging. Rather, if a person has some or all of these symptoms, a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer should be considered.


John Hopkins Medicine. Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms. 

Mayo Clinic. Pancreatic Cancer.