What You Need to Know About Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Cancer Awareness

In addition to being Lung Cancer Awareness Month, November is also Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Pancreatic cancer is considerably rarer than lung cancer, making up just 3% of all cancers in the U.S.1.

While it doesn't occur that often, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer. It accounts for 7% of cancer deaths each year. It's estimated that around 48,220 people will die from pancreatic cancer in 2021 alone1. The five-year survival rate for all stages of the disease is 10%2.

As with other types of cancer, learning the warnings signs and risk factors for pancreatic cancer can help you take action and detect cancer early when it's easiest to treat.

What Is the Pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland found in the abdomen. It's about six inches long and is usually nestled beneath the stomach and gallbladder and just above the large intestine.

The pancreas performs both endocrine and exocrine functions. It helps the body digest food and regulates blood sugar levels. You might be familiar with the gland for the role it plays in producing insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar.

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer develops when either exocrine cells, which play a part in controlling digestion, or endocrine cells, start to grow uncontrollably. The vast majority of pancreatic cancer cases are pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which affects the exocrine function of the gland3. Often, pancreatic adenocarcinoma starts in the ducts, but can also develop in the cells that produce enzymes.

A less common form of pancreatic cancer is a neuroendocrine tumor (NET). A pancreatic NET affects the hormones produced by the pancreas. The tumors grow more slowly than pancreatic adenocarcinomas and often have a better outcome than exocrine cancers. About 7% of pancreatic cancers are NETs4.

Who Is at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?

Risk factors for cancer include those that a person can change and those a person can't change. Some unchangeable risk factors for pancreatic cancer include age and sex. Men have a slightly higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than women. The risk for pancreatic cancer also increases with age.

People with diabetes are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than people without diabetes. In some cases, diabetes can be a risk factor that people can manage. Taking steps to prevent diabetes or to keep the disease under control can reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer5.

Smoking and weight are two other risk factors a person has some control over. As with other types of cancers, quitting smoking significantly reduces a person's risk of developing pancreatic cancer, as smoking is linked to about one-quarter of all pancreatic cancers.

Being overweight, with a body mass index above 30, also increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. How your body stores extra weight might also play a role. People who carry extra weight around the abdomen might have a higher risk for pancreatic cancer than those who don't5.

Excessive alcohol consumption might also increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, particularly pancreatic NET. Drinking a lot of alcohol can lead to pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, which also increases cancer risk.

Does Pancreatic Cancer Cause Symptoms?

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer usually don't start to develop until the disease is advanced. When symptoms do appear, they can be vague and might be confused with another illness.

For example, stomach pain and pain in the mid-back are two common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Bloating and other digestive issues are also fairly common.

More distinct signs of pancreatic cancer include the sudden onset of diabetes, usually in people over the age of 50. Often, the diabetes develops in people who wouldn't usually be considered at risk for the illness, such as people at a "normal" body weight or who don't have a family history of the disease.

Jaundice and unexplained weight loss are two other more distinct symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

How Do You Treat Pancreatic Cancer?

Treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of cancer and type of cancer. The location of the tumor in the pancreas can also influence treatment. For example, if the tumor is at the head of the gland, surgery to remove it might be the best treatment. Another surgical option is to remove the entire gland.

In some patients, chemotherapy or radiation therapy can help to control the cancer cells and limit their growth and spread.

November 18 is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. If you're at an increased risk for pancreatic cancer or have a family history of the disease, talk to your doctor about what you can do to reduce your risk or detect the cancer early.

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1. Key Statistics, American Cancer Society, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/about/key-statistics.html

2. Survival Rates, American Cancer Society, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html

3. What is Pancreatic Cancer? American Cancer Society, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/about/what-is-pancreatic-cancer.html

4. Types of Pancreatic Cancer, PANCAN, https://www.pancan.org/facing-pancreatic-cancer/about-pancreatic-cancer/types-of-pancreatic-cancer/#pnet

5. Risk Factors, American Cancer Society, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html

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