Smoking cigarettes is one of the main risk factors for pancreatic cancer. If a person smokes, quitting may help reduce their likelihood of developing this cancer.

Smoking may also increase the risk of mortality for people who have pancreatic cancer.

If a person currently smokes, a doctor can help them take steps to quit smoking.

This article explains the link between smoking and pancreatic cancer.

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Smoking doubles a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer compared to the risk for people who have never smoked, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). About 25% of all pancreatic cancers have links to cigarette smoking, making smoking one of the key risk factors for the condition.

Cigar smoking and smokeless tobacco use also have links to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.

A 2020 review noted that the risk of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), an incurable type of pancreatic cancer, may increase by around 70% as a result of tobacco smoking.

A 2020 study suggests that nonfiltered cigarettes increase the risk of getting pancreatic cancer, as does childhood exposure to smoke. The authors also note that, among the study participants, smoking black tobacco had an association with a greater pancreatic cancer risk than smoking blond tobacco, but all types increased the risk.

According to a 2022 review, tobacco contains more than 7,000 chemicals, and at least 60 of them are proven carcinogens. Carcinogens are chemicals that can cause cell changes that may contribute to cancer development.

The exact method through which smoking causes pancreatic cancer is unclear. However, the review highlighted several possible causes:

  • Cell damage: Tobacco smoke can damage the cells that make digestive juices in the pancreas, causing them to grow abnormally and form tumors. Studies found this effect in mice after tobacco smoke exposure, as well as in humans who smoked large numbers of cigarettes.
  • Reduced insulin production: Smoking can mean that the islet cells, which make hormones in the pancreas, produce less insulin — a hormone involved in blood sugar regulation. The cells also produce more glucagon, which raises blood sugar levels. These effects increase a person’s risk of diabetes, another pancreatic cancer risk factor.
  • Inflammation and scarring: Smoking can cause inflammation and scarring in the pancreas, which can make it easier for cancer cells to grow and spread. The carcinogens in tobacco smoke can damage the DNA of the cells and make them multiply more quickly.

Smoking also damages the exocrine tissue in the pancreas, according to a 2017 review. This type of tissue is responsible for providing digestive juices to the intestines. PDAC, which accounts for more than 90% of pancreatic cancers, develops in exocrine tissue.

Continuing to smoke after getting a pancreatic cancer diagnosis may reduce a person’s chance of survival.

In a 2017 study of 1,037 people with pancreatic cancer, researchers compared the survival rates for people who smoked to the rates for those who did not. Heavy smokers had a higher risk of mortality than nonsmokers, but former smokers had a similar risk to people who had never smoked.

A 2019 review of 20 studies that included more than 2.5 million people with pancreatic cancer found that both current and former smokers had a higher risk of mortality than people who had never smoked.

Quitting smoking may help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.

A 2023 review found that, for every year after a person quit smoking, their risk of pancreatic cancer decreased by 9%.

The authors found that the pancreatic cancer risk in those who quit smoking at younger than 50 years of age after a 30 pack-year smoking history was similar to the risk in people who had never smoked.

The review authors cited previous research that suggested it can take 20–30 years for someone’s pancreatic cancer risk to significantly decrease after they quit smoking. However, they also noted that some studies have suggested that, within 5–15 years after quitting smoking, a person’s risk may decrease to the same level as someone who has never smoked.

Smoking is a key risk factor for pancreatic cancer, but there are others.

Other risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • chronic pancreatitis
  • exposure to certain chemicals in the metalwork or dry-cleaning industries
  • age, as this cancer is more common after 45 years of age
  • family history of pancreatic cancer
  • some genetic conditions, such as:
    • hereditary breast cancer
    • hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome
    • hereditary pancreatitis
    • familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome
    • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
    • Lynch syndrome

Pancreatic cancer is also slightly more common among males and African American people.

Learn about managing the risks of pancreatic cancer.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about pancreatic cancer.

What is the average age of death from pancreatic cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the median, or middle, age of people who die from pancreatic cancer is 72 years. Around 31.2% of all pancreatic cancer deaths occur in those who are 65–74 years of age.

What are the odds of beating pancreatic cancer?

The odds of beating pancreatic cancer are low. The NCI estimates that the 5-year relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 44.3% for local pancreatic cancer and 3.2% for stage 4, or distant, cancer.

New treatments, such as mRNA vaccines, may help reduce the mortality rate over time. However, these are still in the clinical trial stage and are some years away from reaching the general public.

A relative survival rate helps give an idea of how long a person with a particular condition will live after receiving a diagnosis compared with those without that condition.

For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate is 70%, it means that a person with the condition is 70% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition is.

It is important to remember that these figures are estimates. A person can consult a healthcare professional about how their condition is going to affect them.

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Smoking cigarettes roughly doubles a person’s pancreatic cancer risk. Smoking is linked to around 25% of all pancreatic cancer diagnoses.

The chemicals in tobacco can cause cell changes, damage exocrine tissue in the pancreas, and affect the hormones that the pancreas produces. These effects can also increase a person’s risk of diabetes, a condition that is linked to pancreatic cancer risk.

Quitting smoking may help lower a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer to the same level as someone who has never smoked, though this can take decades.

A person can contact a doctor for advice if they wish to discuss quitting smoking and other steps they can take to reduce their risk of pancreatic cancer.