The pancreas is a small organ that’s situated behind your stomach in your abdomen area and is responsible for helping the body with digestion and regulating blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, it’s also an often-overlooked organ for one of the deadliest forms of cancer.
For Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month this November, we’re taking a closer look at a few of the most commonly asked questions about pancreatic cancer so you can be informed and help spread awareness in your community. Take a look.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells begin to grow uncontrollably and crowd out normal, healthy cells on the pancreas. There are different types of pancreatic cancer, but most cases are what are referred to as “exocrine pancreatic cancers” because they start in the exocrine cells, which are those that aid in digestion. Less common are endocrine tumors that affect the cells that help regulate blood sugar.
How Common is Pancreatic Cancer?
The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that over 55,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, which accounts for about 3% of all cancer cases in the United States. Even more sobering, however, is the fact that this form of cancer accounts for about 7% of cancer deaths in our country every year.
Who’s at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?
Because everyone has a pancreas, everyone is technically at risk of developing pancreatic cancer. With that said, there are a few contributing factors that can greatly increase your level of risk. Here are a few of the biggest risk factors:
- Tobacco Use – The ACS estimates that 20-30 percent of pancreatic cancers are caused by smoking or using smokeless tobacco.
- Weight – Obesity is believed to increase a person’s level of risk by as much as 20%.
- Age – Your level of risk goes up as you age, especially over the age of 65. The average age of most people when they’re diagnosed is 71.
- Gender – Men have been shown to have a slightly higher level of risk, but the gap between men and women has been closing in recent years.
- Family History – Like many diseases and ailments, a person’s genetics has a lot to do with their level of risk; however, many people who do develop pancreatic cancer have no known family history of it.
- Chronic Diseases and Diabetes – Pancreatic cancer has been found to be more common in people with chronic pancreatitis and diabetes.
Although there’s no way to totally prevent pancreatic cancer, it’s a good idea to talk with your primary care doctor if you have any questions or concerns regarding your level of risk. He or she will be able to shed some light on your individual risk factors and provide strategies for improving your chances of avoiding pancreatic cancer (and other types of cancer, too).
What are Some Warning Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of pancreatic cancer is the fact that the symptoms, especially early on, are wide ranging and often difficult to pinpoint. Here are just a few of them:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
- Unusually dark urine
- Light-colored or greasy stools
- Belly or back pain
- Unexpected weight loss
- Poor appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatty tissue abnormalities under the skin
There are other signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer as well, but it’s important to understand that many of the symptoms noted above and by the ACS are often caused by something other than pancreatic cancer. With that in mind, it’s still important to see a doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms because, by the time symptoms arise due to pancreatic cancer, the cancer has likely already spread outside of the pancreas.
Is There Any Way to Treat Pancreatic Cancer?
Although the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network notes that the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just 9%, a patient’s individual prognosis is going to depend greatly on their overall health as well as the stage in which the cancer is discovered. The most common forms of treatment include:
- Radiation therapy
As with every form of cancer, the earlier pancreatic cancer is detected, the more treatment options there will be for a person’s cancer team to explore.
Want to learn more about pancreatic cancer or looking for ways to get involved? Visit the official website of the American Cancer Society for additional statistics, facts, figures, and articles. And be sure to check out the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s website for shareable social media graphics and ideas that you can use all month long.