Health Topics

Lowering your risk for pancreatic cancer


September 11, 2020

Learn how to lower your risk for pancreatic cancer and how to spot signs.

A person’s lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 64, according to the American Cancer Society. But people can reduce their risk by making certain lifestyle modifications, being aware of their family medical history and staying in tune with changes in their body.

“Pancreatic cancer is so tricky because it often shows with little signs or symptoms, especially in the early stages,” said Kira Soldani, NP, an advanced practice provider in surgical oncology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Talk to your primary care provider right away if you experience jaundice (a yellowing of the skin), changes in your stool, unexpected weight loss, or unexplained abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting.

Your best defense to lower your risk for pancreatic cancer is reducing your modifiable risk factors and being aware of the ones you cannot change.

Modifiable risk factors

One major risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer is having chronic pancreatitis. “Chronic pancreatitis is long-term inflammation of the pancreas,” Soldani explained, “and that’s often seen with patients with heavy alcohol use or smoking.” Smoking cessation and reducing alcohol consumption can help minimize the risk of pancreas cancer.

Certain pancreatic cysts can also transform into pancreatic cancer. Therefore, they need to evaluated and followed.

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are also risk factors for pancreatic cancer. “There is not a specific diet to help decrease your risk, other than just eating a well-balanced diet,” Soldani explained. Talk to your primary care provider about solutions to help you reduce your risks if you have concerns about your weight, your alcohol or tobacco consumption or managing diabetes. It is unclear whether type 1 diabetes is a risk factor, Soldani noted.

Family history

Your family history may also put you at a higher risk. “Families are usually considered to have some sort of familial pancreatic cancer if there are at least two members of the family with pancreatic cancer who are first-degree relatives,” Soldani said. First-degree relatives are a parent, a sibling or a child. Or, if you have three members, not necessarily all first-degree relatives, who’ve had pancreatic cancer, that is also a red flag.

“With inherited genetic syndromes, there’s a lot of overlapping with pancreatic cancer and, for instance, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer,” Soldani added. That’s why it’s important to understand your family medical history and have an informed discussion with your primary care provider who can then refer you to a specialist or order testing if necessary.

Additional non-modifiable risk factors

Your age, gender and race also impact your risk for developing pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Risk increases with age. Almost all patients with a diagnosis are over 45, and two-third are over 65. “Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women,” Soldani said. “And African Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-African Americans.”

Pancreatic cancer prevention and treatment

If you or someone you love is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer or are at a higher risk for developing it, Vanderbilt’s pancreas program offers a multidisciplinary team approach that helps individualize care, Soldani said. “It’s kind of one-stop shop for patients and their families,” she explained. “It allows us to really hold their hand through the process.”

The experts at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center work to provide a precise diagnosis and effective treatment options for pancreatic cancer. The team  combines advanced research, technology and techniques with compassionate care to create a personalized treatment plan that is right for each patient.

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Kira Soldani, MSN, RN, FNP-BC, is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner in the Division of Surgical Oncology specializing in gastrointestinal type malignancies and assists to manage Vanderbilts Pancreatic Cyst Clinic. She brings over 13 years of surgical experience with a particular interest in the pancreas and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.