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 individuals at increased risk may consider enrolling in a research screening study if eligible. Depending on your personal and family history of cancer, you may be eligible to have genetic testing to determine if you have any genetic changes (mutations) that increase your risk of pancreas cancer.

Is Pancreatic Cancer Genetic?

.All cancers have a genetic component because they involve changes to our DNA, the carrier of our genetic information, but not all cancers are hereditary (passed down in families). Most pancreas cancers result from genetic changes that occur during a person’s lifetime (not inherited). 

Hereditary Pancreatic Cancer

The majority of pancreas cancer is random or sporadic in nature. In some families, there are more cases of pancreas cancer than would be expected by chance alone. It is possible that there is a hereditary cause for the cancer in some of these families called Familial Pancreas Cancer (FPC). At this time, there is no known gene specifically for familial pancreas cancer.

However, there are genes that cause other hereditary cancer syndromes and also increase a person’s risk of pancreas cancer. Hereditary cancer syndromes are caused by specific genetic mutations that can be passed down from parents to their children. These mutations increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. 

Here are some well-known hereditary cancer syndromes and genes that may also increase an individual’s risk of getting pancreas cancer: 

  • BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are commonly associated with breast and ovarian cancer. 
  • Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) syndrome leads to the development of polyps in the colon and rectum. 
  • Familial Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma (FAMMM) increases risk of melanoma. 
  • Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC) or Lynch Syndrome increases risk of various cancers, including colon and uterine. 
  • Hereditary Pancreatitis involves repeated pancreas inflammation and often starts at a young age. 
  • Peutz–Jeghers increases risk of several different cancers. 

Pancreas cancer is more likely to be hereditary in: 

  • Families where multiple relatives have pancreas cancer 
  • Patients who are diagnosed at young ages 
  • Families with a strong family history of certain types of cancer 
  • Certain ethnic groups 

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. 

Genetic testing

Genetic testing can be arranged by your doctor or a genetic counsellor.  Genetic counsellors are healthcare professionals with advanced training in medical genetics and counselling, which enables them to order and interpret genetic test results. Speak to your doctor for more information or if you have questions about your eligibility. 

If you have pancreas cancer in your family and/or other cancers associated with an increased risk of pancreas cancer, it may be caused by a genetic mutation. Genetic testing can help determine if you carry the mutation as well, which could increase your risk. The decision to have genetic testing is a personal one and it is important that individuals make an informed choice for themselves. 

How to access genetic testing

If your doctor recommends genetic testing based on your family history of pancreas and/or related cancers, they will organize a referral to a genetics clinic/counsellor.   

During your appointment, the genetic counsellor will likely:   

  • Collect information about your personal and family history of cancer and any other relevant medical history 
  • Provide genetic education 
  • Advise you of the testing options available 
  • Discuss how the outcomes of genetic testing may impact you and/or your family   

You are never obligated to have genetic testing.  You may only want to have an initial counselling session to determine eligibility for testing and to discuss any questions you may have.  It is always a good idea to keep your doctor informed about your family history of cancer.   

Genetic testing for inherited cancer is usually through a blood sample donation. 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. Wait times for results may vary by the type of genetic test and province. 

It is important to remember that even if you do not have a genetic mutation that is associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, that does not mean that you will not develop it. In addition, pancreatic cancer can still be diagnosed in people without any hereditary genetic changes. It is still important to be vigilant about your heath and reach out to your doctor if anything feels unusual. 

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

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.

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?

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