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( -Aretha Franklin has been quiet about the nature of the illness that prompted her to cancel all upcoming events and undergo surgery last week, but reports are now speculating that the Queen of Soul is suffering from pancreatic cancer.

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

About one in 76 people will develop pancreatic cancer. As with many types of cancer, the causes of pancreatic cancer are simply not known. Although certain pancreatic cancer risk factors have been identified, there is no complete understanding of the disease.

Pancreatic cancer develops when a cell in the pancreas acquires damage to its DNA that causes it to behave and multiply abnormally (no one knows exactly how this process happens). A single cancer cell grows and divides rapidly, becoming a tumor that does not respect normal boundaries in the body. Eventually, cells from the tumor can travel elsewhere in the body (metastasize) through the blood or lymphatic system.

Some of these mutations happen randomly. Others occur in response to things we do or experience in the environment. Some may be inherited.

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

Though the underlying causes of pancreatic cancer are still not understood, certain risk factors for pancreatic cancer have been identified. These factors are present more often in people who get pancreatic cancer than in people who don’t.

There are multiple pancreatic risk factors, although most are only weakly associated with pancreatic cancer. Many people with pancreatic cancer don’t have any one risk factor:

• Genetics. Five percent to 10% of people with pancreatic cancer have an immediate family member who also has pancreatic cancer. Several different genes have been associated with the increased risk, although no “pancreatic cancer gene” has yet been identified.

• Diabetes. People with diabetes are slightly more likely to get pancreatic cancer. There’s some controversy in these cases as to whether diabetes causes pancreatic cancer, or if the pancreas starts to malfunction before cancer develops, causing diabetes.

• Smoking. Cigarette smoking is well known to increase the risk for pancreatic cancer. The more a person smokes, the higher the risk of pancreatic cancer. Ten years after quitting smoking, the risk returns to about that of someone who never smoked.

• Obesity and inactivity. In a study of 88,000 nurses, those who were obese (body mass index higher than 30) were more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Those who exercised frequently were about half as likely to get pancreatic cancer, compared to those who did not exercise at all.

• Diet. Can what we eat cause pancreatic cancer? A diet high in fat and meat (especially smoked or processed meat) has been linked to pancreatic cancer in some studies. Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables decreased pancreatic cancer risk in other studies. Still other studies suggest there’s no identifiable link between diet and pancreatic cancer.

• Lycopene and selenium. Studies have shown low levels of these nutrients in some people who developed pancreatic cancer. That’s not proof that low levels cause pancreatic cancer, though. Any diet that includes lean meat and red or yellow vegetables should provide adequate lycopene and selenium.

Unfortunately, eliminating your risk factors for pancreatic cancer many not entirely reduce your pancreatic cancer risk. But eating a healthy diet, keeping a healthy weight, and exercising frequently will improve overall health, and reduce your risk of other health problems.

By Brittany Gatson, BDO Staff Writer

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