Your pancreas is an organ and part of your digestive system. Located in your abdomen, the pancreas is only about 6 to 8 inches long. Its main function is breaking down food and controlling the glucose in your body.
Why Pancreatic Cancer is Difficult to Diagnose
In the next few years, pancreatic cancer is projected to be the second cause of cancer deaths. Other cancers have made huge advancements in how we diagnose and treat them – but that's not the case with this cancer.
Cancers like colon or breast are easier to diagnose in the early stages when it is more treatable – unlike pancreatic – where diagnosis is almost non-existent until it has reached its latter stages and has a high mortality rate. About 57,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year.
Causes/Risks of Pancreatic Cancer
No one knows what causes pancreatic cancer but it develops when malignant cells form in its tissues. This cancer is very hard to detect and not much is known about what causes it but there are some factors that might increase its risks.
Almost 98 percent of new pancreatic cancer diagnoses are people 45 years or older. Men are slightly more at risk than women. Also, smoking and obesity are thought to play a part. A family history of the disease, diabetes, and chronic inflammation of the pancreas are also common risk factors.
Warning Signs of Pancreatic Cancer
Because it’s usually an aggressive form of cancer and hard to detect in its early stages, this type of cancer is rarely diagnosed before it has spread to other organs in the body. However, watch for these signs:
- Yellowing of the eyes, jaundice
- Itchy skin
- Pain in the stomach or back
- Excessive weight loss over a short period of time
- Lack of appetite
- Blood clots
While having one or more of these signs does not mean you have cancer, it’s always important to check with your physician.
Preventing Pancreatic Cancer
The best way to prevent pancreatic cancer is to maintain your body weight in a normal range and eat a healthy diet. Decreasing your risk factors, like smoking, is also good for prevention.
Dr. Amir Fathi, assistant clinical professor at UCSF and director of Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary surgery at Community Regional Medical Center, says it is very important to listen to your body if you are experiencing any warning signs and to see your physician right away.
Diagnosing and Treating Pancreatic Cancer
In order to diagnose pancreatic cancer your physician will usually run lab tests and schedule some imaging like an MRI. Treatment may include:
- Surgery (removal of cancer or palliative to relieve symptoms or prevent complications)
- Ablation (extreme cold or heat) or embolization (blocking blood flow to cancer cells)
- Radiation (high energy particles that kill cancer cells)
- Chemotherapy (drug injected in vein or taken by mouth)
- Targeted Therapy (drugs used to specifically target these cancer cells)
- Immunotherapy (uses patient’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells)
Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rates
Dr. Fathi said it is important for diagnosed patients to have a positive outlook. Those who do seem to do better. Over the last few decades pancreatic cancer survival rates have improved but it is still considered rarely curable. According to the American Cancer Society the one-year rate of survival is about 20% and the five-year rate is 7%.