Is Pancreatic Cancer Hereditary?
About 64,050 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by the end of this year – and within that number, about 50,550 will die. Slightly more commonly found in cisgender men than cisgender women, pancreatic cancer is responsible for about seven percent of all cancer-related deaths, and in some cases, it can be hereditary. But before you begin looking into pancreatic cancer genetic ancestry, let’s explore the details of the disease: its symptoms, causes, and what sort of preventative measures you should start taking now to ensure you aren’t increasingly vulnerable to development.
What is pancreatic cancer?
Cancer is born from the abnormal growth of cells, and for pancreatic cancer, that occurs in the pancreas: a lower abdominal organ that creates natural juices to break down food. There are a few different ways the pancreas can become infected with cancer – and each comes with its own treatment approach that may or may not work, depending on the stage the cancer is in.
The different types of pancreatic cancer
- Pancreatic adenocarcinoma
About 95 percent of pancreas cancers are adenocarcinomas. In these cases, the cancer will form in the pancreas ducts – and sometimes, it will develop from the cells that create pancreatic enzymes (but this is much less common).
- Adenosquamous carcinoma
This form of pancreatic cancer involves two different types of cells: gland-like cells and squamous cells, which line the pancreas. It’s an aggressive cancer, but a much less frequently-occuring one.
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Squamous cell pancreas cancer is a very rare malignancy, but once diagnosed, it’s considered an aggressive form of cancer with a high mortality rate.
- Signet ring cell carcinoma
This rare pancreatic adenocarcinoma variant is presented as single cells or loose clusters hidden in the background of the pancreas. It’s difficult to diagnose, and it can be quite aggressive, but it makes up less than one percent of all pancreatic cancers.
- Undifferentiated carcinoma
This is another incredibly rare form of pancreas cancer, but it’s also aggressive and can be difficult to detect in patients.
- Ampullary cancer
Ampullary cancer begins in the ampulla of Vater – a.k.a., where the pancreatic and bile ducts merge and empty into the small intestine. This form of cancer blocks the bile duct, which can lead to bile buildup throughout the body. It’s often diagnosed easily because of its incredibly noticeable side effect: jaundice, which is the yellowing of the eyes and skin. As a result, ampullary cancer has a lower mortality rate than other aggressive types of cancers.
Is pancreatic cancer hereditary?
Although rare, pancreatic cancer is often aggressive and difficult to survive, and as a result, many people cautiously wonder to themselves, “Is pancreatic cancer hereditary?” However, there’s still a 90 percent chance of pancreatic cancer being contracted some other way – so even if the disease doesn’t run in your family, you’ll want to remain cognizant and aware of possible symptoms you might be experiencing.
The main symptoms of pancreatic cancer
Here are some of the most common symptoms among pancreatic cancer patients – things to keep an eye on in your daily life if you think you might be at risk (or have just noticed something different about yourself). If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, we recommend meeting with a doctor or medical professional immediately to gain some clarity.
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Darker urine than usual, or brown urine
- Light-colored, greasy stools (indicating bile buildup)
- Itchy skin
- Abdominal pain
- Back pain
- Diabetes – either new or existing cases
- Sudden, unexpected weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Liver or gallbladder enlargement (can either be felt by a doctor during a physical exam or spotted on an imaging test)
- Blood clots – often in the legs
The main causes of pancreatic cancer
While the answer to the question, “Is pancreatic cancer hereditary?” can sometimes be yes, it only accounts for ten percent of cases. There are a few other reasons someone might contract this rare but aggressive disease, but unfortunately, medical professionals haven’t figured out a clear cause when it comes to pancreatic cancer. However, a few assumptions have been made based on years of research, and here are the main recognized possibilities.
- Smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol
Tobacco and alcohol consumption increase a person’s risk for most types of cancer, and pancreatic cancer is no exception. If you want to decrease your odds of developing the disease, it’s a good idea to stay away from both vices – or at least limit your intake as much as possible.
Being overweight also puts people at higher risk for many types of cancers. If you have reason to believe you might be susceptible to pancreatic cancer or a similar disease, being mindful of your weight can be a positive way to lower your risk.
- Chronic pancreatic inflammation
Inflammation is also known for increasing someone’s risk of illness or disease, and inflammation of the pancreas will leave a person particularly vulnerable to developing cancer in the region.
Just as diabetes is a possible side effect of developing pancreatic cancer, it’s also a potential cause of the disease.
- Older age
Anyone over the age of 55 is more likely to develop various forms of cancers, and the same is true for pancreatic cancer.
Germline testing will identify whether or not a person has inherited genetic mutations that are often linked to pancreatic cancer. This includes possible mutations on the following genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2, MLH1, SH2, SH6, PMS2, EPCAM, TP53, STK11, ATM, or PALB2. These genetic mutations can also increase the risk of other types of cancer, so when you test for pancreatic cancer, you may also be gaining insight into other illnesses that might afflict you down the line. If you have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer – or certain genetic mutations – you should consult a germline test.
Somatic testing is typically done when someone has already been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This type of test examines samples of the tumor in order to figure out whether or not the cancer has mutations in specific genes. This sort of research will help medical professionals determine how a patient might respond to treatment, and what sort of approach makes the most sense for recovery.
Pancreatic cancer treatment options
Once you’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, there are a few treatment options you can look into that might help soothe your symptoms or reverse the disease’s effects. Here are some of the most common treatment plans patients tend to turn to:
Pancreatic cancer patients will occasionally have the option of undergoing surgery. In these cases, patients will either be prescribed potentially curative surgery (when exam and test results indicate the cancer is possible to remove entirely) or palliative surgery (the cancer is too widespread to be completely removed; instead, the surgery is designed to relieve symptoms).
- Radiation therapy
With radiation therapy, high-energy X-rays are utilized to kill cancer cells. Sometimes, this form of treatment is effective against pancreatic cancer – but the process is also known for its aggressive and intense side effects.
Similar to radiation therapy, chemotherapy can have aggressive and intense side effects. An anti-cancer drug is either injected or taken orally, and can be utilized at any stage of the cancer’s progression.
- Targeted therapy
Researchers have recently developed drugs that more specifically target changes in pancreatic cells, and they tend to work differently from standard chemotherapy drugs.
This approach utilizes medicines to stimulate a person’s immune system. The point is to get the body to awaken to the cancer and fight it naturally, and it may be effective in fighting pancreatic cancer.