Why is pancreatic cancer often diagnosed in late stages?

Dr. Tomislav Dragovich is chief of Medical Oncology and Hematology at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Question: Why is pancreatic cancer often diagnosed in late stages?

Answer: The pancreas is an organ located just below the stomach and its function is to release hormones like insulin to regulate blood glucose level and digestive enzymes. Even if cancer is developing in the pancreas, the organ can typically continue functioning before symptoms of the cancer appear. Unfortunately, these symptoms can be very vague and may be associated with other conditions. The symptoms include unexplained or unintentional weight loss, a lack of appetite, a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, and upper abdominal pain.

Pancreatic cancer is usually very advanced by the time a person notices any significant health changes. Because there are no effective screening tools for pancreatic cancer (like the colonoscopy for colon cancer and the mammogram for breast cancer), most patients are still diagnosed too late. Pancreatic cancer is extremely aggressive, which also advances the stage at which it is diagnosed, and the rapid growth of a cancerous pancreatic tumor can make surgical removal difficult or even impossible. In 50 percent of all diagnosed cases of pancreatic cancer, the cancer has metastasized to other areas of the body, meaning it has spread beyond the pancreas.

Though pancreatic cancer is rarely diagnosed early, several risk factors exist that can be monitored. Having family members with certain genetic syndromes or who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can increase a person’s risk. Individuals who are overweight or use tobacco have higher risk, as do people who suffer from chronic pancreatitis or new-onset diabetes, which are conditions affecting the function of the pancreas. Any new symptoms should always be reported to your physician immediately, so health concerns can be addressed as early as possible.