The pancreas is part of the digestive system. It has two main roles.
The pancreas makes:
- pancreatic juices, which help the body to digest protein, carbohydrates and fats
- insulin, a hormone that enables the body to use sugars and store fats.
The position of the pancreas.
The pancreas is in the upper half of the abdomen, level with the V-shape where the ribs meet at the front. It lies behind the stomach and just in front of the backbone. It’s about 15cm (6in) long and is shaped like a tadpole. The large rounded section is called the head of the pancreas and lies next to the first part of the small bowel (the duodenum). The middle part is known as the body of the pancreas. The narrow part is called the tail of the pancreas and is on your left side. Pancreatic juices travel through small tubes (ducts) in the pancreas into a larger duct called the pancreatic duct. This joins with the bile duct, which carries bile from the liver and gall bladder, before opening into the duodenum. The pancreatic juices flow along the pancreatic duct into the duodenum where they help to digest food.
Risk factors and causes of pancreatic cancer
We don’t know what causes it to develop, but research into this is ongoing. Like all cancers, pancreatic cancer isn’t infectious and can’t be passed on to other people. Things that can increase your risk of developing a disease are called risk factors.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:
As people get older, their risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases. It mainly affects people in middle and old age and is rare in younger people. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are 65 or older.
Smoking and tobacco
About 3 in 10 pancreatic cancers may be due to smoking. People who chew tobacco are also at increased risk.
A diet that contains large amounts of red or processed meat may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Processed meats include ham, sausages, bacon and burgers. Regularly eating a diet that is high in fat and sugar and low in fresh fruit and vegetables may also increase the risk. We have more information about keeping a healthy diet in our section on eating well.
Drinking alcohol in moderation doesn’t affect the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. However drinking large amounts of alcohol regularly may increase the risk, especially in people who smoke.
Bodyweight and physical activity
Some studies have found that being very overweight (obese) and being physically inactive may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. It’s thought about 1 in 8 pancreatic cancers (12%) may be linked to obesity.
Some medical conditions
People who have a condition called chronic pancreatitis, in which the pancreas is inflamed, tender and swollen over a long period of time, are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. The risk is highest for people who have chronic pancreatitis due to a rare inherited condition called hereditary pancreatitis.
Having diabetes increases the risk of developing cancer of the pancreas. But diabetes is common and the vast majority of people with diabetes won’t develop pancreatic cancer.
Most people who develop pancreatic cancer have no history of pancreatic cancer in their family. But about 5–10 out of every 100 cases of pancreatic cancer (5–10%) may be linked to faulty genes that can run in families. If two or more people on the same side of a family have pancreatic cancer, this may be a sign that other people in the family are at an increased risk too. People who have the faulty breast cancer gene BRCA2 or the condition Lynch syndrome/HNPCC (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer) may have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Members of families with a tendency to have large numbers of unusual moles (FAMMM – Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma) also have an increased risk of cancer of the pancreas. People with Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS) have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. PJS is a condition that causes multiple growths (polyps) in the digestive tract and dark spots on the skin of the face and hands.
If you may be at a higher risk of pancreatic cancer because of your family history, you can be referred to a specialist clinic for advice. At the clinic your risk will be carefully assessed. People who are at a significantly increased risk may be offered regular screening tests to try to detect cancer of the pancreas early if it does occur.
The best way to screen for pancreatic cancer hasn’t yet been established, so screening may be offered as part of a research trial.