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Pancreatic Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer found in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is a glandular organ located between the stomach and the small intestine. It is about 6 inches long and is surrounded by other organs, including the liver, spleen, and small intestine. The pancreas is made up of 2 types of glands: endocrine and exocrine gland.

Human pancreas

The exocrine gland functions to secrete digestive enzymes. These enzymes help break down carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and acids in the duodenum, helping you digest foods. Most of the pancreas is made up of exocrine cells which form the exocrine glands and ducts.

Endocrine cells make up a smaller percentage of the cells in the pancreas. These cells secretes important hormones like insulin and glucagon which help regulate blood sugar levels, and release them directly into the bloodstream.

According to Cancer.net, pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of death from cancer in men and women in 2018, accounting for 7 percent of all cancer deaths. It is estimated that 55,440 adults (29,200 men and 26,240 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., and nearly 45,000 adults will die from the disease.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

There are several types of pancreatic cancer, depending on which part of the pancreas is affected; exocrine or the endocrine cells.

Exocrine pancreatic tumors

Exocrine tumors are the most common type of pancreatic cancer and about 95 percent of exocrine pancreatic tumors are Adenocarcinomas. These tumors usually start in the cells lining of the pancreatic duct, which make enzymes for digestion.

Other less common exocrine pancreatic tumors include:

  • Adenosquamous carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Giant cell carcinoma
  • Acinar cell carcinoma
  • Small cell carcinoma

Endocrine pancreatic tumors

These are also known as “Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (PNETs)” or “Islet Cell Tumors”. They are much less common than exocrine tumors, making up about 7 percent of pancreatic cancers. They start in the endocrine gland, where insulin and other hormones are made and released directly into the bloodstream.

A pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors can be either benigns or cancerous. A pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors may also be classified as either functioning or nonfunctioning.

A functioning pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor produce hormones that cause specific symptoms. A nonfunctioning pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor does not produces hormones and does not cause symptoms.

Most pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are nonfunctioning and because of a lack of symptoms, these tumors are usually diagnosed at a more advanced stage.

There are 5 major types of functioning pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. They are named after the hormone they produce. However, some tumors can make 2 or more of these hormones at the same time. These include:

  • Gastrinomas
  • Glucagonomas
  • Insulinomas
  • Somatostatinomas
  • VIPomas

Causes and Risk Factors of Pancreatic Cancer

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is still unknown, but there are some risk factors that have been shown to increase the risk for pancreatic cancer.


The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are older than 65. However, adults of any age can be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.


African Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than Asian, Hispanic, or Caucasian counterparts. The reasons for this aren’t clear, but it may due to unhealthy lifestyle factors such as poor diet, obesity, smoking, etc.


Pancreatic cancer is more common in men than in women. This may be due, at least in part, to higher tobacco use in men, which raises pancreatic cancer risk.

Family history

Pancreatic cancer may run in a family or may be linked with genetic conditions that increase the risk of other types of cancer. However, this isn’t common. It’s less than 10% of pancreatic cancer cases.


Smoking is one of the main causes of pancreatic cancer in both men and women. The more a person smokes, the higher the risk. However, the risk of pancreatic cancer starts to drop once a person stops smoking.


Being very overweight (obese) is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Obese people (Body Mass Index [BMI] of 30 or more) are about 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.


A diet high in red meat, particularly meat cooked at high temperatures, has been linked to pancreatic cancer in animal studies. Red meat includes beef, lamb and pork.

Eating processed meats may also increase your risk of pancreatic cancer. They include sausages, ham, bacon, salami and burgers.

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