The Most Important Things To Know About Pancreatic Cancer

All types of cancers present challenges, but pancreatic cancer is particularly difficult for those diagnosed with it, any loved ones around them, and even their providers.

The biggest reason why is because this particular cancer is difficult to detect early, which means by the time it’s confirmed, the cancer is often at the advanced stage, and that any cancerous tumors have grown and spread so large that there are few effective treatment options available.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, as many as 80 percent of cases are diagnosed at a point where it’s more difficult or even medically inadvisable to try to remove or treat the cancer.

If it is detected early, which is rare, then there can be a fairly high success rate of removal and recovery, especially once surgery or other forms of therapy takes place.

Pancreatic cancer also can move quickly. Once it’s detected, only about 5 to 10 percent of people diagnosed with it are still alive within 5 years. Someone who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when it’s at a late stage is likely to pass away within a year.

Further complicating matters is that many of the symptoms, including possible early warnings, look similar to other more common medical conditions, such as stomach pain or back pain. A typical provider is more likely to try to treat these symptoms by themselves without considering pancreatic cancer.  

The American Association for Cancer Research said that more people are expected to be diagnosed with this type of cancer in the next decade.

About 64,050 diagnoses are expected in 2023 with 50,550 deaths, making it the third largest cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Projections show that it could move up to the second-largest form of cancer death by 2030, still behind lung cancer.  

A closer look

Pancreatic cancer takes place when cancerous cells begin to grow on the pancreas, which is a small gland that is located between the spine and the stomach. There are three parts, the head, body, and tail.

The role of the pancreas is to create hormones that control levels of blood sugar, including insulin and glucagon. It also makes fluids that help break down food in the digestive process.

Most types of cancer that begin in the pancreas start in the exocrine cells, which are part of the digestive fluids. But they can spread quickly and cause tumors, which eventually disrupt the digestive process.

As with many other cancers, no clear cause has been found how or why cells begin to mutate, but some risk factors have been identified.

The National Cancer Institute said that family history of this type of cancer increases the possibility of it taking place. Genetic history of other related cancers, such as breast, ovarian or colon, also adds to the risk factor.

Other medical conditions such as pancreatitis or diabetes can also increase the risk, especially since dealing with insulin levels is part of these conditions.

Smoking is included on the list of risk factors, as is obesity. Diet can play a role too, especially something high in red meats and processed meats. (Risk factors do decrease with a diet containing more fruits and vegetables.)

The risk of this type of cancer can increase with age, so it’s important to be conscious of this and alert your provider about any changes in your health.

Watching for the signs

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network said when pancreatic cancer begins, it can lead to changes in the body.  They are similar to other health conditions so may not attract attention unless a provider is specifically looking for them. These can include:

  • Bloating
  • Pain in stomach, abdomen, or back
  • Problems digesting
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Unexpected fatigue (often from less nutrients)
  • Different type of stool, especially lighter and looser
  • Darker urine
  • A yellow hue in skin or eyes, from jaundice
  • An unexpected diagnosis of diabetes especially without any warning signs
  • If you’re already diabetic, your blood sugar levels have significantly begun to change
  • Loss of appetite

If a provider does decide to examine your pancreas closer, there are several tools to evaluate it, including ultrasounds, MRIs or CAT scans. A provider can also take a biopsy of the gland using a laparoscopic tool.

One non-invasive way is to simply draw blood and see if has certain proteins that could indicate this type of cancer, or higher or lower than expected levels of certain hormones.  

Depending on the size of the cancer, a provider may be able to perform surgery or authorize other ways to remove the cancer.

Learn more

For anyone who wants to learn more about pancreatic cancer, including health care providers, fall is a good opportunity to discover new resources.

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity to encourage people to help fund research and provide resources for people dealing with the condition. They can support providers in their area, spread the word or tell a story on social media, or demonstrate their commitment by wearing a purple ribbon.

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