Genetics and Hereditary Factors of Pancreatic Cancer

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Genetic cancer differs from hereditary cancer in that a risk for the disease runs in a family.

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Is Pancreatic Cancer Genetic?

All cancers are genetic. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is in every cell in our bodies. Each DNA strand contains many genes. All cancers begin when DNA mutations, or changes, cause cells to divide and grow out of control.

But this is different from hereditary cancer. Hereditary or familial cancer means that a risk for the disease runs in the family.

Is Pancreatic Cancer Hereditary?

About 5 to 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are hereditary. This means that for every 20 people with pancreatic cancer, one or two likely have an inherited mutation that increased their risk for developing the disease.

Mutations that happen during a person’s lifetime, rather than inherited mutations, cause most pancreatic cancers. These mutations cannot be passed from parent to child.

But in some cases, mutated DNA passes from generation to generation. These are called germline mutations. These mutations may lead to hereditary pancreatic cancer. This is the only way pancreatic cancer is inherited.

How Do You Know if Pancreatic Cancer in Your Family Is Hereditary?

You may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer if you have:

  • Two or more first-degree relatives (parents, children, sisters, brothers) who have had pancreatic cancer
  • A first-degree relative who developed pancreatic cancer before the age of 50
  • An inherited genetic syndrome associated with pancreatic cancer

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends consulting with a genetic counselor to determine your risk and eligibility for a screening program.

The risk increases if more family members are affected with pancreatic cancer or other specific cancers or conditions, including:

  • Familial breast, ovarian or colon cancer
  • Familial melanoma
  • Hereditary pancreatitis: repeating pancreatic inflammation, generally starting by age 20

Use our family history worksheet to better understand your risk of hereditary pancreatic cancer.

Know your pancreatic cancer risk. Take the test →

Being at higher risk or having a family history of pancreatic cancer does not mean that you will definitely get the disease.

What Genes Are Associated with Hereditary Pancreatic Cancer?

Researchers are studying several hereditary disorders and genes for connections to pancreatic cancer, including:

  • BRCA Mutation
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP)
  • Familial Atypical Multiple Mole
  • Melanoma (FAMMM)
  • Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC) or Lynch Syndrome
  • Hereditary Pancreatitis
  • PALB2 Mutation
  • Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome

Learn more about genetic mutations.

Patient Central can also give you more information on hereditary syndromes linked to pancreatic cancer.

If You Have One of These Disorders, Does That Mean You Will Get Pancreatic Cancer?

Having a genetic condition related to pancreatic cancer does not mean a person will definitely get pancreatic cancer. But it does mean they may be more likely to get the disease than others.

If you think you may be at risk for pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor or genetic counselor. A genetic counselor can give you information on genetic testing and help figure out which tests may be right for you.

The only way to be sure you have a mutation associated with pancreatic cancer is to meet with a genetic counselor and get tested.

What Is a Genetic Counselor?

Genetic counselors are trained in the medical and emotional aspects of inherited diseases. An oncology genetic counselor specializes in counseling and educating people with cancer and their family members who may have a higher chance of developing cancer.

Learn more about genetic counseling.

A genetic counselor can also help you and your family decide if you should get genetic testing.

What Is Genetic Testing?

Genetic testing looks for inherited mutations. The alterations to a person’s DNA are the same throughout their whole body. So, this analysis is usually done on a blood or saliva sample.

A recent study suggests all people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, regardless of family history, should have genetic testing. If genetic testing shows a germline mutation, then their loved ones could consider getting tested also.

Carriers of a genetic alteration are at higher risk than most people. But this does not mean that they will definitely develop the disease.

Genetic tests can be expensive. Insurance may cover the testing, but not always. Genetic counselors can help by telling your insurance company the importance of genetic counseling and having the testing covered for you.

Talk to your doctor or a genetic counselor to choose the tests and next steps that are right for you.

What Can You Do if You Have Hereditary Pancreatic Cancer in Your Family?

Genetic testing can confirm if you are more likely to get pancreatic cancer.If a genetic counselor believes you are at a higher risk for developing the disease:

  • Experts recommend enrolling in a surveillance program if you qualify.
  • Some doctors recommend yearly imaging scans. These scans often start at age 50 but may start sooner if pancreatic cancer seems to happen in that person’s family earlier in life.
  • You can take part in genetic or family registries.

For information on surveillance programs in your area and a list of genetic registries, contact Patient Central.

What Is a Surveillance Program?

In a surveillance, early detection or screening program, doctors actively check people who are at risk of getting pancreatic cancer.

The goal is to find early pancreatic cancer and pre-cancerous lesions. Patients whose disease is found in its earlier stages have better outcomes. This is because they are more likely to be able to have surgery.

Surveillance programs usually use imaging tests to watch patients. They may also collect blood or pancreatic fluids to test.

Benefits of taking part in a surveillance program include:

  • Knowledgeable doctors monitoring you
  • Possible help from new diagnostic tests
  • Helping advance early detection efforts

Before enrolling in a surveillance program, you should understand the risks and benefits of screening. The healthcare professionals running the program can help you with this.

What Is a Genetic Registry?

Genetic or family registries collect information about families with multiple pancreatic cancer diagnoses. This often includes information about a family’s:

  • Environment
  • Lifestyle habits
  • History of pancreatic cancer
  • Incidence of other cancers in the family

The goal is to find common aspects in families with multiple pancreatic cancer cases that will lead to better understanding of the disease. Registries are vital to research on hereditary pancreatic cancer causes.

Family registries do not offer early detection or screening for pancreatic cancer.

Learn more about genetic registries.

If you have been diagnosed or have taken care of someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and would like to contribute to research, join our Patient Registry.

How Can Knowing About an Inherited Genetic Mutation Help Patients?

Besides increasing risk for pancreatic cancer, some germline mutations affect treatment options for those who get the disease. Using the tumor’s biological characteristics, or molecular profile, to figure out the best treatment options for a person is called precision medicine.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends all pancreatic cancer patients undergo molecular profiling of their tumor. Adding germline testing can give even more information about the patient’s disease, their treatment options and how their relatives may also be affected.

Our Know Your Tumor® precision medicine service can give patients and their healthcare teams information about both germline and somatic (non-inherited) mutations.

What Can You Do if Only One Family Member Had Pancreatic Cancer?

If a living family member with pancreatic cancer plans to get treatment and/or wants to know the potential impact on other family members, that patient is encouraged to think about genetic testing or see a genetic counselor. If testing shows a germline mutation, then their loved ones could consider testing as well.

If you have a family member who died of pancreatic cancer but do not know if there is a familial link or possible inherited mutation:

  • Know the signs of pancreatic cancer. Watch carefully for them. Advocate for your doctor to check any symptoms that do arise.
  • Use our family history worksheet and talk to your doctor about it. Other cancer types in your family may show potential inherited syndromes. Or, it may give you peace of mind.
  • You can see a genetic counselor if you are especially worried. But the visit and tests are not likely to be covered by insurance.

Genetics of Pancreatic Cancer Video

We’re Here to Help

Contact Patient Central for free, in-depth information about pancreatic cancer risk factors, genetic tests, genetic counseling and screening and surveillance programs.

Related Topics

  • Genetic Counseling

    Learn how genetic counselors can help those worried about their pancreatic cancer risk.

  • Risk Factors

    Understand what makes people more likely to get pancreatic cancer.

News About Genetics and Family History


Information reviewed by PanCAN’s Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, who are experts in the field from such institutions as University of Pennsylvania, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Virginia Mason Medical Center and more.

Information provided by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc. (“PanCAN”) is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or other health care services. PanCAN may provide information to you about physicians, products, services, clinical trials or treatments related to pancreatic cancer, but PanCAN does not recommend nor endorse any particular health care resource. In addition, please note that any personal information you provide to PanCAN’s associates during telephone and/or email communications may be stored and used to help PanCAN achieve its mission of assisting patients with, and finding cures and treatments for, pancreatic cancer. Stored constituent information may be used to inform PanCAN programs and activities. Information also may be provided in aggregate or limited formats to third parties to guide future pancreatic cancer research and treatment efforts. PanCAN will not provide personal directly identifying information (such as your name or contact information) to such third parties without your prior written consent unless required or permitted by law to do so.

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