Genetic Testing

Early detection is one of the greatest challenges we face in trying to raise the survival rate of this disease. There are currently no screening tests available for pancreatic cancer. However, if you have a history of this disease in your family, it may be possible for you to qualify for genetic testing. Accessing genetic counselling and testing may help you better understand your risk of pancreatic cancer, and whether you have a hereditary gene that could increase your risk.

What is hereditary pancreatic cancer?

All cancer is genetic, but not all cancer is hereditary. We each have over 20,000 genes that tell the body how to grow. All cancers are caused by changes in genes.

Hereditary pancreatic cancer involves genes that are passed down through generations. These genes have been identified as cancer causing through years of scientific research, and can sometimes be a risk for more than one cancer type. Some genes, referred to as ‘founder mutations’, can also be more prevalent among specific ethnic groups. Only about 5-10% of cancer diagnoses are hereditary.

Potential indicators of heredity pancreatic cancer:

  •  Young age at time of diagnosis
  • Same or related types of cancer in multiple individuals in successive generations
  • Multiple primary cancers in your family

What you need to know about genetic testing

If you have pancreatic cancer in your family, it could be caused by a hereditary gene. Genetic testing can help you understand if you carry the gene as well, which could increase your risk. The decision to get genetic testing is a personal one and it is important that individuals make that choice for themselves. 
What does genetic testing entail?

Genetic testing generally involves the following process:

  • A doctor or genetic counsellor will conduct a risk assessment. This first step collects pertinent information to help determine your level of risk. You will be asked for information about you family history, history of other cancers you have developed or that are in your family, your general medical history, and lifestyle factors.
  • You will likely meet with a genetic counsellor. Genetic counsellors are healthcare professionals with advanced training in medical genetics and counselling, which enables them to interpret genetic test results. During your appointment, the genetic counsellor will provide genetic education, advise you of the testing options available, and discuss how the outcomes of genetic testing may impact you or your family. Your genetic counsellor will be able to provide more information about topics such as:
    • How inherited diseases and conditions might affect you and your families
    • How family and medical histories impact the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence
    • Which genetic tests may or may not be right for them, and what those tests may or may not tell
    • How to make the most informed choices about healthcare conditions

By speaking to a genetic counsellor you are not obligated to then proceed with genetic testing.

  • Testing occurs. If you choose to consent to the test, it may be taken by blood or tissue. If the test has been recommended by your doctor there may be coverage for testing fees depending on the province you live in. In other cases, genetic testing fees may require payment out of pocket. Generally, it takes approximately eight weeks for test results to be ready, though wait times may vary by province or locale.

Who is eligible for genetic testing?

Your doctor may consider family history, personal history, and known risks before recommending genetic testing. If you have two or more first-degree relatives that have had pancreatic cancer, you may qualify for genetic testing. Speak to your doctor if you have questions about your eligibility and view general provincial guidelines in the map below.

How do you access genetic testing?

If your doctor recommends genetic testing based on your family history of pancreatic or related cancers, they will provide you with a referral to a genetic counsellor to start the process. Genetic testing may also be available through private clinics.

Which genes are associated with pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is in the tumour spectrum of several well-known hereditary cancer conditions:

  • Breast cancer genes: BRCA1, BRCA2, PALB2, ATM
  • Colon cancer genes: Lynch syndrome genes, STK11
  • Melanoma genes: CDKN2A
  • Pancreatitis genes: PRSS1, SPINK1
  • Rare: TP53
It is important to remember that even if you do not have a genetic risk of pancreatic cancer, that does not mean that you will not develop it in the future. It is still important to be vigilant about your heath and reach out to your doctor if anything feels unusual.

Genetic testing guidelines across Canada

Hover over each province to learn about any special conditions to qualify for genetic testing.

Purple indicates that a person with a qualifying family history of pancreatic cancer are eligible for a referral for genetic testing.

Blue indicates that the province has no specific guidelines around genetic testing but referrals for genetic testing can be made.

Yellow indicates that the province has special guidelines or a particular process in place.

Grey indicates that genetic testing is handled out of territory.

Are there other ways to monitor my risk or catch pancreatic cancer in the early stages?

Know your family history.

If two or more family members have had pancreatic cancer, the disease could be attributed to familial pancreatic cancer. This type of risk makes up approximately 10-30% of cancer diagnoses. Research to identify familial pancreatic cancer is ongoing, though could be related to environment or be caused by multiple genes.

Understand the other risk factors.

Pancreatic cancer has several other identified risk factors that are both modifiable and not modifiable. Modifiable risk factors can include smoking, alcohol consumption, and lifestyle. Non-modifiable risk factors can include age, race, diabetes, pancreatitis, environmental factors, and family history.
Click here to see the full list of risk factors.

Awareness of the signs and symptoms. 

Persistent pain in the abdomen or mid-back, new onset diabetes, jaundice, and/or fatigue. You know your body best, if something feels unusual or if pain persists, visit your doctor and reference pancreatic cancer.
Click here to see the full list of symptoms.

BE WELL TALKS: Pancreatic Cancer Genetics

In the webinar on the left, genetic counsellor Spring Holter explains what you need to know about genetic testing, including:

  • What genes are associated with pancreatic cancer development
  • How genetic testing works
  • Who is eligible for genetic testing
This webinar was developed in collaboration with our partners at Wellspring. Support of this pancreatic cancer webinar is made possible through an educational grant
from AstraZeneca.

Do you have questions about genetic testing for pancreatic cancer?

We’re here to help. Reach out to our experts today:

The easiest way to get your question to our experts is by filling in the form below. This helps us quickly share your question with our experts.

You can also leave a voicemail for our Ask An Expert service by calling us toll free at 1-888-726-2269 and selecting “9” on the main menu.

For all inquiries, we will be in touch within two business days.

Please note, while we are happy to answer questions and help you navigate this disease, this service is not able to make a diagnosis, provide medical advice, or a second opinion.

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