Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage your blood sugar.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until the disease is advanced. They may include:
Pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to your back
Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
It's not clear what causes pancreatic cancer in most cases. Doctors have identified factors, such as smoking, that increase your risk of developing the disease.
Factors that may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include:
Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
Family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
Family history of pancreatic cancer
Older age, as most people are diagnosed after age 65
A large study demonstrated that the combination of smoking, long-standing diabetes and a poor diet increases the risk of pancreatic cancer beyond the risk of any one of these factors alone.
Stop smoking. If you smoke, try to stop. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you stop, including support groups, medications and nicotine replacement therapy. If you don't smoke, don't start.
Maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain it. If you need to lose weight, aim for a slow, steady weight loss — 1 to 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a week. Combine daily exercise with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains with smaller portions to help you lose weight.
Choose a healthy diet. A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains may help reduce your risk of cancer.