Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month

Answer: More than 56,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with this disease.

Question: What is pancreatic cancer?

By now you’ve probably heard that beloved Jeopardy host, Alex Trebec, died of pancreatic cancer earlier this month. Of all major cancers, pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate. 

The older we get the greater the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Though pancreatic cancer has occurred in people under forty five years old and even under 30 years old in rare cases, most cases are diagnosed between sixty and eighty years old. The pancreas is located deep in the abdomen and doctors usually cannot see or feel the tumor during a physical exam making it  difficult to diagnose at an early stage. Symptoms usually develop over time and are not always obvious. Most patients are diagnosed when being tested for another unrelated medical condition. Symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
  • Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that’s becoming more difficult to control
  • Blood clots

Once diagnosed only about twenty percent of pancreatic cancer patients are eligible for surgery. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends that patients consult with a surgeon who performs more than fifteen pancreatic surgeries per year to determine eligibility. 

Stage IV pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of one percent. The average patient diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer will live for about one year after diagnosis.

Risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer include:

Obesity – People who are obese are about twenty percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Keeping a well-balanced diet that includes  a lot of colorful fruits and vegetables, less processed foods, and more whole grains can help maintain a healthy weight and a healthy pancreas..

Smoking – Twenty to thirty percent of pancreatic cancers are attributed to cigarette smoking. Talk to your doctor about a plan to quit smoking. 

Diabetes – Adult onset diabetes, also known as type 2 diabetes leads to a greater risk for developing pancreatic cancer. If you are an older, thin individual who is newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a screening for pancreatic cancer is in order.

Inherited genetic syndromes – Some genetic disorders can be attributed to various types of cancer and in this case, about ten percent of pancreatic cancers are passed from parent to child.

Eating right and exercising can be the key to prevention of so many diseases. Eating lean meats such as chicken, fish or turkey and other lean sources of proteins including eggs, low-fat dairy products, nuts and nut butter, beans and soy foods can help fight pancreatic cancer.

If found early enough, pancreatic cancer can be removed with surgery. Surgery is typically followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation. It’s important to discuss all treatment options with your doctor so you can make the best decision for you. Factors including age, the stage of cancer, and whether or not surgery is an option, will all influence the treatment decisions to be made.