Does it Run in My Family?

The connection between your family’s medical history and pancreatic cancer

As you may already know, cancer can run in families. In fact, people carrying certain genetic mutations have an increased risk of getting cancers including breast, colon, prostate, ovarian, and pancreatic cancer. All told, researchers estimate that known genetic mutations are related to roughly 10 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer. But there are also families with a striking number of pancreatic cancer cases, but no known mutation.

Three outlines of a figure with a family tree showing mutations

The mutation most often found when there is a family history of cancer is in the BRCA gene. If you’re familiar with BRCA1/2 mutations, you may likely think of them as causing breast cancer. But BRCA mutations—in particular BRCA2—can also increase your risk for developing pancreatic cancer. In fact, BRCA2 mutations increase your risk more than all the other cancer-related mutations, accounting for 5 to 17 percent of all inherited pancreatic cancers.

Logo of the Basser Center for BRCA

Learn more about BRCA

The Basser Center for BRCA is the first comprehensive center for the research, treatment, and prevention of BRCA-related cancers, including breast, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, and melanoma.

But BRCA mutations are not the only ones that increase pancreatic cancer risk. Scientists call PALB2 a “pancreatic cancer susceptibility gene” because it makes you more likely to get the cancer, although how much more likely is not yet known.

There are other cancer-related conditions that can run in your family and thus increase pancreatic cancer risk, too. These include Lynch syndrome-related colorectal cancer (MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, and PMS2), Peutz-Jeghers syndrome- related digestive system cancers (STK11), hereditary pancreatitis (PRSS1), familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, and ataxia-telangiectasia (ATM), a cerebellar degeneration syndrome.

But genetic mutations are just one piece of the complicated inherited pancreatic cancer puzzle. Another five percent of pancreatic cancers occur in families that have a history of the disease but no known mutation. It is not clear if these families have a yet-to-be-identified mutation or if another factor is involved. This is why family medical history is so important.

What You Can Do

The first step is to learn your family medical history. Has anyone had cancer in your family? If so, what kind? Does a particular type of cancer run in your family? Does it include pancreatic cancer? Make it a point to ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings for that important information. Then share what you learn with everyone, especially your children.

Andy Lyons
Survivor Stories
September 13, 2023 • 6 Min

A Cancer-Free Life 25 Years in the Making

Andy Lyons lost many family members to pancreatic cancer. With such a family history he knew to be proactive and get screened regularly.

pancreatic cancer patient Martin Abrams
Survivor Stories
August 30, 2022 • 3 Min

Family History Matters

After Martin Abrams lost two siblings to pancreatic cancer, he made sure he was screened regularly because of his family history.

pancreatic cancer survivor Robert Wagar
Survivor Stories
May 5, 2022 • 3 Min

My Journey with Pancreatic Cancer

Dr. Robert Wagar lost both parents to pancreatic cancer. When his wife found an article about a surveillance study he had an MRI, which found a lesion.

Dr. Diane Simeone
September 29, 2017 • 4 Min

Pancreatic Cancer and Family History

Dr. Diane Simeone is developing a tablet-based family history survey to identify patients with a genetic-based risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Diane Simeone and genetic counselor Jessica Everett
June 8, 2021 • 4 Min

Crafting a Medical Family Tree

Dr. Diane Simeone and genetic counselor Jessica Everett explain why it is important to create a medical family tree for pancreatic cancer.

Learn About Genetic Testing

If your family has a history of cancer, particularly breast, ovarian, prostate, or pancreatic, you should consider making an appointment with a genetic counselor. The counselor can guide you through the testing process and help you understand the results.

Knowing that you carry a mutation such as BRCA also helps other family members. They can also get tested, and those who carry the same mutation can manage their risk by participating in screening programs.

Genetic testing also impacts treatment. Carriers of the BRCA and PALB2 mutations respond better to certain chemotherapy drugs and targeted treatments such as PARP inhibitors. In fact, genetic testing is now standard of care for pancreatic cancer patients, meaning that all patients should get tested.

Genetic counselors Jill Stopfer and Heather Hampel
Disease Management
February 18, 2020 • 8 Min

Decoding the Differences between At-Home and Medical Genetic Testing

Genetic counselors Jill Stopfer and Heather Hampel explain the differences between at-home and medical genetic testing, including precision and knowledge.

Gloria Peterson, Ph.D.
February 4, 2019 • 5 Min

Genetic Testing for All Pancreatic Cancer Patients

A study by Dr. Gloria Petersen’s research team has led to an official recommendation that all pancreatic cancer patients get genetic testing.

DNA representation
December 5, 2017 • 5 Min

The ABCs of Genetic Testing

There are a number of different genetic mutations that can cause familial pancreatic cancer. This article explains some of the most common ones.

Hands holding an image of DNA analysis, in blue light.
December 1, 2017 • 6 Min

Before You Leap: Genetic Testing for Pancreatic Cancer

Genetic counselor Megan Frone outlines the advantages of genetic testing when there is a family history of pancreatic cancer.

Angela Bradbury MD
April 26, 2021 • 5 Min

Improving Access to Genetic Testing and Counseling

Dr. Angela Bradbury is leading a study on access to genetic testing and genetic counseling, including a telehealth option.

Looking down a spiral staircase
April 5, 2018 • 4 Min

Genetic Testing Can Help Those You Love

Dr. Fay Kastrinos, director of the Muzzi Mirza Pancreatic Cancer Prevention and Genetics Program at Columbia University Medical Center, explains the value of genetic testing for cancer prevention and treatment.

Screening Programs

Until a definitive test for early detection of pancreatic cancer is available, screening people at higher risk is the best way to diagnose pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages.

If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer or have one of the mutations that increase your risk of the disease, you may want to consider joining a screening program. Many cancer centers screen people at high risk as part of their overall cancer programs. There are also clinical trials that study people with a family history of pancreatic cancer, for example the CAPS5 study and  the PRECEDE trial. Screening programs around the country include:

Tumor registries look for risk factors, genes, and biomarkers that could be used for early detection tests. The registries are open to current patients and family members and include surveillance programs for participants.

Dr. Allyson Ocean
April 14, 2023 • 5 Min

Who Should Be Screened For Pancreatic Cancer

Who should be screened for pancreatic cancer? Dr. Allyson Ocean explains how genetic mutations and family history factor into screening.

Dr. Michael Goggins
January 5, 2023 • 4 Min

Screening Programs Save High-Risk People

Dr. Michael Goggins explains who should undergo regular pancreatic cancer screening and where programs can be found.

Dr. Alison Klein, pancreatic cancer researcher
November 7, 2022 • 6 Min

Putting Familial Risk In Perspective

Dr. Alison Klein works to understand the relationship between familial risk and the chances of developing pancreatic cancer.

orange and purple topped blood vials in a yellow tray
February 9, 2022 • 5 Min

Understanding Who Is at High Risk for Pancreatic Cancer

Who is high-risk for pancreatic cancer? Oncologist Dr. Matthew Yurgelun explains high-risk populations and what steps to take if you meet the criteria.

Pancreatic cancer survivors Scott and Steve Nelson
Survivor Stories
June 6, 2019 • 5 Min

Younger Brother’s Pancreatic Cancer Leads to Regular Screening for his Oldest Brother

When Scott Nelson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, oldest brother Steve began regular screening, which lead to his early diagnosis.

Dr. Aimee Lucas
October 19, 2018 • 4 Min

Which Is the Best Screening Method for Pancreatic Cancer?

Dr. Aimee Lucas outlines the pros and cons of various screening methods that can be used for pancreatic cancer, and who should be using them.

Pancreatic canc er survivor Carolynn Kiel
Survivor Stories
October 17, 2017 • 3 Min

Early Detection Makes All the Difference

Carolynn Kiel lost her mother and sister to pancreatic cancer. Regular screening allowed early detection of her pancreatic cancer.


Let’s Win and organizations such as the Basser Center for BRCA and the American Society of Clinical Oncology have a wealth of information about the relationship between genetic mutations, family history, and cancer. Learn more about the guidelines for who should consider genetic testing and pancreatic cancer screening.

Dr. Amitabh Chak
July 14, 2022 • 4 Min

New Gastrointestinal Screening Guidelines for High-Risk Patients

Get informed about the latest pancreatic cancer screening guidelines for high-risk patients from gasterenterologist Dr. Amitabh Chak.

Dr. Sapna Syngal
November 14, 2018 • 4 Min

New NCCN Guidelines Stress Genetic Testing For All Pancreatic Cancer Patients

Genetics impact your treatment for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Sapna Syngal discusses the recommendation of genetic testing for all pancreatic cancer patients.