In November, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, the focus is on raising awareness about risk factors and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. It’s especially important for individuals considered to be at an elevated risk of developing the disease to be aware of potential symptoms.
But how is risk measured and what do risk factors mean?
“There are some risk factors that you can change – lifestyle choices like smoking or diet,” explained Nicole Feingold, MA, director of Patient Services at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). “Other risk factors cannot be changed, such as age, race or genetic makeup.”
People are often flooded with reminders to eat nutritiously, get plenty of exercise, avoid smoking and maintain a healthy body weight – and all these factors can help lessen pancreatic cancer risk, too.
However, it’s important to note that not everyone who smokes or is overweight will develop pancreatic cancer or other diseases – and not everyone who gets those diseases has a clear risk factor.
“Risk is relative – being at an elevated risk means you have a higher likelihood of developing a disease, compared to the general population,” Feingold said. “But it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get the disease.”
She continued, “We often speak with family members whose loved ones were otherwise in good health and lived a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer can affect anyone.”
As for risk factors that can’t be altered, one of the most important things people can do is be very aware of their family history.
If you have two or more first-degree relatives who have had pancreatic cancer, a first-degree relative who developed pancreatic cancer before the age of 50, or an inherited genetic syndrome associated with pancreatic cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
PanCAN strongly recommends consulting with a genetic counselor to determine your risk and eligibility for a screening program.
Genetic counselors can also help you look at your family and personal history of other types of cancer or diseases that might be relevant – and help you choose which types of tests may be best for you, if appropriate.
Recent research has indicated that pancreatic cancer patients may have germline (or inherited) genetic mutations even without a family history. Guidelines are beginning to recommend germline testing for all patients, regardless of family history.
If you have a loved one currently diagnosed with the disease, encourage them to consider germline testing to help inform if you might be at higher risk for developing the disease.
Another risk factor is race or ethnicity – African-Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to individuals of Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian descent.
There is also a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer among Ashkenazi Jews, possibly due to a mutation involving the breast cancer (BRCA2) gene, which is found in about 1 percent of individuals of this background.
Diabetes can be considered both a risk factor and a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
Longstanding diabetes is considered a mild risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer. However, it’s important for individuals who are diagnosed with new-onset diabetes, after the age of 50, to discuss the potential for pancreatic cancer screening with their doctors, as their diabetes may be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
“People who have any of the risk factors mentioned above – and especially if they have more than one – should listen carefully to their bodies, be aware of any symptoms that are out of the ordinary and openly communicate with their healthcare team,” Feingold said.
“Our hope is to raise awareness (but not fear) about risk factors and symptoms, so the disease can be diagnosed earlier, when it is more treatable.”