Family history is an important part of understanding your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Learn about genetics, the hereditary link of pancreatic cancer and what the research tells us.
What does hereditary mean?
Hereditary refers to genes and/or medical conditions that can be passed down from parent to child. Eye colour is a common example of a trait influenced by the genes (DNA) passed down from your family.
What is the link between family history and pancreatic cancer?
Research shows 5% of pancreatic cancers happen because of an inherited predisposition to cancer. A predisposition means a higher chance of something (like a disease or medical condition) occurring.
Sometimes an inherited cancer-related syndrome or genetic variant (change or fault) can be identified. Sometimes a family history of pancreatic cancer suggests an inherited predisposition but no underlying genetic cause is found.
What is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer?
A risk factor is something that makes you more likely than the average person to get pancreatic cancer. A family history of pancreatic cancer is a risk factor for developing it, but having a family history does not mean you will definitely develop pancreatic cancer.
Some risk factors for pancreatic cancer are linked to lifestyle or certain behaviours that can be changed, such as diet, obesity and smoking. These are termed modifiable risk factors. Other risk factors are non-modifiable. These include older age, being male, and chronic pancreatitis.
Statistics help us assess our risk, but it can be hard to weigh up exactly how these figures relate to you. Your doctor can help you understand your individual situation and if recommended, refer you to see a genetic counsellor.
How does family history increase your risk of pancreatic cancer?
A 2016 Australian study published in Cancer Forum1 reported the lifetime risk of an individual developing pancreatic cancer by 80 years old, based on family history, certain inherited syndromes or genetic mutations.
Familial pancreatic cancer
Your first-degree relatives are your biological parents, children and siblings.
- The general population has about a 1% lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer.
- If you have one first-degree relative with pancreatic cancer, the lifetime risk is 4%.
- If you have two first-degree relatives with pancreatic cancer, the lifetime risk is 8–12%.
- If you have three or more first-degree relatives on the same side of the family with pancreatic cancer, the lifetime risk is estimated at 39%.
The risk of familial pancreatic cancer goes up if you have more relatives on the same side of your family with a history of the condition, especially if those relatives are young at diagnosis.
Genetic mutations linked to pancreatic cancer
For people who have undergone genetic testing, a very small number are found to have genetic mutations or syndromes, which may increase their risk of developing pancreatic cancer. These include:
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (STK11 gene)
- hereditary pancreatitis (PRSS1 gene)
- familial melanoma (CDKN2A)
- hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA2 gene)
- Lynch syndrome
- faulty ATM gene
- faulty PALB2 gene.
What are my options if I have a family history of pancreatic cancer or relevant mutation?
There can be a lot to take in when thinking about your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. A medical geneticist or genetic counsellor has the training to guide you through the complexities of this. They can assess your family history, interpret genetic test results and support you and your family to understand your risk better.
“Genetic testing has potential value for the individual and their families," says Prof Ingrid Winship AO, Clinical Geneticist and Chief Research Officer, Epworth HealthCare.
"It may identify a variant in a gene that predisposes to pancreatic cancer, which makes individuals more vulnerable. This gives the opportunity to assess the cancer risk, and then manage that risk.
“With precision medicine, for those individuals who have pancreatic cancer, understanding the genes may offer a more targeted type of treatment.”
Screening for pancreatic cancer may be an option for you. Screening involves testing for cancer when you have no pancreatic cancer symptoms, with the aim to detect it earlier.
The Jreissati Family Pancreatic Centre at Epworth is a Victorian site for the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Screening Program. This study is assessing endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) as a screening test for pancreatic cancer for people with a higher risk because of family history or genetic results. Study participants see a genetic counsellor and take part in endoscopic ultrasounds, generally each year.
Learn more about screening at the Jreissati Family Pancreatic Centre at Epworth
To find out more about the program, contact:
Research Program Manager
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 03 9426 8880
Online form: www.epworth.org.au/who-we-are/jreissati-pancreatic-centre/contact
1. Inherited Pancreatic Cancer, Cancer Forum 2016. Available at: pancreaticcancer.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/McKay-Inherited-PC.pdf
11 July 2022