The recent loss of Alex Trebek to pancreatic cancer has brought a renewed and increased awareness to the disease. Pancreatic cancer accounts for 7% of all cancers, but it is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in America each year and is steadily increasing.
“Pancreatic cancer is a form of cancer that forms in the pancreas, a thin, pear-shaped gland that sits behind the stomach and is responsible for digestion and blood sugar regulation,” said Tomislav Dragovich, MD, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona. “It is an area that is difficult to access and visualize, unlike the colon or breast, which are easier to examine and see.”
While most people know someone who has been affected by cancer, awareness of pancreatic cancer is low, and it’s often misunderstood.
Here are five facts everyone should know about the disease.
1. We don’t know the cause
Most pancreatic cancers are sporadic, meaning they happen, and we don’t know why. However, it is estimated that 10% of pancreatic cancers are connected to genetic causes.
“There is a realization that a significant number of patients with pancreatic cancer carry genes that may put them at greater risk for this disease and possible other cancers as well,” Dr. Dragovich said. “This is why we recommend genetic counseling and testing for all newly diagnosed patients with pancreatic cancer.”
While we don’t know all the causes for pancreatic cancer, we do know some of the risk factors associated with it. These include:
- Two or more first-degree relatives who’ve had it
- A first-degree relative who developed pancreatic cancer before age 50
- Genetic syndromes
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Ethnicity: Black/African American men and women and Ashkenazi Jews
- Being over the age of 60
2. There are different types of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic tumors can be exocrine or neuroendocrine. The most common (and the most serious) type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma, which develops from exocrine cells. The less common and more favorable in terms of prognosis is neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (PNET). Other, uncommon types include lymphoma and sarcoma of the pancreas.
Knowing the type of tumor is important, because each type acts differently and responds to different treatments.
3. Symptoms are hard to pinpoint
Often, the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are difficult to recognize. These include back pain and abdominal pain, weight loss, jaundice, nausea and new onset diabetes, but these symptoms could also suggest other medical issues.
“Unfortunately, early pancreatic cancer symptoms are not easily recognized because they are not very specific,” said Michael Choti, MD, division chief of surgery with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona. “Weight loss can be attributed to many different causes and back pain (a notable sign of pancreatic cancer) is more commonly attributed to back problems or arthritis. Jaundice, while easily recognized, is usually a sign of already advanced cancer.”
4. It’s hard to diagnose early
Pancreatic cancer is not only hard to recognize early on, there are also no screening tests for early detection. Most are usually diagnosed at an advanced stage.
If the cancer is diagnosed early, patients may be eligible for surgery, but Dr. Choti said only 1 of 4 newly diagnosed pancreatic cancers is operable.
5. Research and clinical trials are crucial
The more we know about pancreatic cancer, the better equipped we will be to find ways to catch it and treat it early and dramatically improve survival. Clinical trials are necessary to determine whether new treatments developed in the laboratory are benefiting those living with pancreatic cancer.
“Pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage and chances of a cure are low, even in patients that are candidates for surgery,” Dr. Dragovich said. “This emphasizes the need to always consider new therapies offered through clinical trials for each and every patient diagnosed with this disease.”
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