Pancreatic cancer rates are increasing as a part of the broader oncological trend. The American Cancer Society forecasts roughly 64,000 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in the US during the 2023 year, impacting men and women relatively evenly.

While considered one of the most challenging types of cancer to treat, treatment options have improved over the past decade.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer forms in the pancreas and often spreads to nearby organs and tissue. The pancreas is a gland located between the stomach and spinal column. At roughly six inches long, the gland secretes digestive enzymes to support digestion. It’s also the sources of insulin and glucagon, chemicals which help control blood sugar levels. These vital functions are often key to identifying early symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Signs

The earliest signs of pancreatic cancer are related to digestion and energy levels. This is the result of the gland’s integral role in secreting digestive enzymes. The symptoms most frequently linked to pancreatic cancer are:

  • Dark urine
  • Pain in the stomach, upper abdomen and back
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice

A Difficult Diagnosis

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is very difficult to diagnosis. The diseases express no noticeable symptoms in it earliest stages and, when symptoms are evident, they’re similar to many other types of illnesses. Because the disease affects fewer than 100,000 adults per year in the US, there are dozens of more likely causes of those symptoms for physicians to rule out.

Testing for pancreatic cancer requires several tests to definitively diagnosis and stage. In most cases, physicians will order a series of physical exams, blood tests, MRIs, CT scans and PET scans. These examinations are designed to confirm the location of a tumor on the pancreas and detect additional tumor formations in other parts of the body.

Because of the pancreas’ location, biopsies are usually ordered when tumors are identified on more accessible organs, such as the liver. These samples can be used to confirm cancer of the pancreas through DNA testing and may provide insight into prospective cancer development nearby.

Pancreatic Cancer: Prognosis and Treatment Options

This type of cancer remains one of the most challenging to diagnosis and treat. The primary factors that shape patient prognosis are:

  • Whether an oncologist believes the tumor can be removed surgically.
  • Cancer staging, such as the size of the tumor or where the cancer has spread.
  • Patient’s health and age
  • Patient cancer history

The most effective way to treat pancreatic cancer is the partial or complete removal of the pancreas. Surgical treatment is only viable of the tumor is identified early and there is no evidence that the cancer has spread. Other treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, are sometimes administered to slow the spread of the disease or maintain quality of life.

Related: Stomach Cancer: Risks, Symptoms and More

Notable Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Options

The Whipple procedure – An effective option for pancreatic cancers detected in Stage One, this surgical procedure removes the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder and a portion of the stomach. The surgery also removed a small portion of the small intensive and the bile duct. This procedure mitigates the risk of cancer spread and increases life expectancy in most cases.

Biliary bypass: If surgery cannot remove the tumor, the tumor may block the bile duct. The bypass procedure creates an alternative pathway from the bile duct to the small intestine to reduce the risk of bile build up.

Chemoradiation – This method combines external radiation therapy and chemotherapy to slow tumor cell growth or stop its spread to other parts of the body. In most cases, utilizing chemo, radiation or both extends patient life expectancy.

Patients may also be eligible for clinical trials based on various factors. Talk to your healthcare provider about all of your treatment and palliative care options.

Statistics and Frequently Asked Questions

Pancreatic cancer is a relatively rare cancer diagnosis in the United States. The lifetime risk of a diagnosis is roughly 1 in 64, but individual risk is based on several risk factors, including family history. Pancreatic cancer makes up 3% of all cancer in the US per year and an outsized 7% of all cancer-related deaths.

What is the survival rate of pancreatic cancer?

Most physicians use a 5-year relative survival rate as the basis of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. The relative survival rate is divided into average outcomes for three cancer stages. The 5-year relative survival rate is comparison of the expected live expectancy of a patient with a specific stage of cancer versus the general population.

For example, if the 5-year survival rate for lung cancer is 50%, then a cancer patient is 50% as likely to live 5 years as someone without the disease.

Instead of the 4-stage scenario used by most oncologists, this system breaks relative survival rate into three categories:

Localized – The cancer has not spread outside the pancreas.

Regional – The cancer has spread to nearby organs or lymph notes.

Distant – The cancer is confirmed to have spread to distant parts of the body, the lungs, liver or other areas.

Note that 5-year relative survival is inherently time-limited and may not reflect the effectiveness of more modern treatment methods.

The 5-year relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer, by stage:

  • Localized – 44%
  • Regional – 15%
  • Distant – 3%

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

There are several risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer. These preventable and non-preventable factors could play a role in diagnosis, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Pancreatitis
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Familiy history of other types of cancer
  • Being 65 years of age or older
  • High alcohol consumption

Experts such as the Mayo Clinic note that individuals with an elevated risk of pancreatic cancer should stop smoking and endeavor to maintain a healthy weight. These two factors are believed to be the most controllable risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer.

You Can Prevent Pancreatic Cancer

Less Cancer is committed to reducing rates of pancreatic and all types of cancer through cancer prevention advocacy and resources. Don’t face your diagnosis or the diagnosis of a loved one alone. Speak with your healthcare provider and Less Cancer for resources and support.