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The pancreas, a gland located just below the stomach, plays an important role in regulating many bodily functions. This important organ secretes hormones such as insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels, as well as enzymes that affect digestion. Serious conditions such as diabetes and pancreatitis can negatively impact the functioning of the pancreas. The most serious condition affecting this gland, however, is pancreatic cancer.
According to recent statistics, roughly 1.5% of adults will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during their lifetimes. With just 8.5% of patients surviving 5 years or more following their diagnosis, this type of cancer is among the most deadly.
Read on to learn more about the risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options for pancreatic cancer. Though a diagnosis may not be avoidable, being informed will allow you to manage the condition should you or a loved one receive a diagnosis.
Pancreatic Cancer: Facts & Statistics
In the United States, pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common type of cancer. Compared to many other types of cancer, however, it is particularly deadly. Breast cancer, for instance, the most common type of cancer in the U.S., will be diagnosed approximately 266,000 times in 2018, resulting in roughly 41,000 deaths. Though just 55,000 cases of pancreatic cancer are likely to be found, over 44,000 individuals will die from this type of cancer.
Both men and women are at risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In general, men are slightly more likely to be diagnosed than women.Those over the age of 55 are most likely to receive a diagnosis, with a median age of 70 at the time of diagnosis.
Though these statistics can sound intimidating, it is important to remember that pancreatic cancer remains a relatively uncommon diagnosis. Improved diagnostic techniques and treatment options will likely improve survival outcomes in the future.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer & Diagnosis
The pancreas is located deep within the body. For this reason, early diagnosis can be difficult. Tumors are often missed during routine health exams. In many cases, patients do not have symptoms until the condition has spread to other organs.
At this point in time, most screening tests and blood tests aren’t shown to be particularly effective for diagnosing pancreatic cancer. Though tumor markers CA 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), proteins found in the bloodstream, have been linked to pancreatic cancer, these proteins don’t necessarily increase if a person has the cancer. Even if a patient has elevated levels of these proteins, in many cases the condition has already advanced by the time levels have become elevated.
In some cases, genetic testing may help individuals determine whether or not they are at an elevated risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Those with a family history of pancreatic cancer or certain other cancers may be able to determine whether or not certain genetic mutations may lead to an elevated risk of cancer diagnosis. If you believe your family history puts you at risk of developing pancreatic cancer, talk to your doctor about whether or not genetic testing may be an option for you.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may vary depending on the specific subtype of the disease one is diagnosed with. Exocrine cancers often have different symptoms than neuroendocrine (NET) tumors. These symptoms, however, could reflect other conditions as well.
Exocrine pancreatic cancer may result in jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. If the condition spreads to the liver, itchy skin, darkly-colored urine, and pale or greasy stools may result. Patients may experience weight loss, nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, or gallbladder or liver enlargement. Blood clotting issues, such as deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, may occur as well. Though less common, some patients also experience changes in the fatty tissue beneath the skin or may develop diabetes as a result of exocrine pancreatic cancer.Neuroendocrine tumors affecting the pancreas often cause the release of excess hormones into the bloodstream. Depending on the type of tumor that has formed, different hormones may be released, resulting in various symptoms. Gastrinomas, for instance, are tumors that cause the stomach to produce too much stomach acid, resulting in conditions like stomach ulcers and nausea. Glucagonomas are tumors that increase blood sugar levels. These tumors can sometimes cause symptoms such as diabetes, diarrhea, weight loss, and skin conditions, such as necrolytic migratory erythema, a red rash that results in swelling and blisters. Insulinomas, which lower blood sugar levels, can lead to weakness, low pulse, feelings of lightheadedness, and even seizures. Various other tumors, such as somatostatinomas and VIPomas may also cause digestive issues, weight loss, nausea, and diarrhea. Other tumor types, such as carcinoid tumors and non-functioning neuroendocrine tumors, often cause problems upon spreading to the liver, resulting in various symptoms ranging from heart problems to jaundice and weight loss.
In general, pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose. If you are experiencing unusual symptoms similar to those listed above, however, it is important to talk to your doctor. Though these symptoms may be the result of a number of different conditions, it is best to have them addressed early, so that you can receive the treatment your body needs.
Preventing Pancreatic Cancer
Doctors and researchers often aren’t able to determine specific causes for most cases of pancreatic cancer. In some cases, inherited gene mutations may raise an individual’s risk for developing the cancer. Acquired gene mutations, sometimes random and sometimes the result of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, such as those found in tobacco smoke, may also contribute to the development of the condition.Though many risk factors, such as age, race, and family history cannot be controlled, all individuals can take certain steps to lower their overall risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Smokers should strive to quit, and those who drink may want to limit their alcohol consumption. Being physically fit, eating well, and maintaining a healthy weight are all good steps to reducing one’s risk of developing most types of cancer. If possible, limit your exposure to workplace chemicals, too. Strive to get a physical on a regular basis, and talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing any unexplainable or prolonged physical symptoms.
Pancreatic cancer is a condition that can affect anyone. By living a healthy lifestyle and getting frequent check-ups, however, you can do your best to lower your overall cancer risk.
If you or a loved one are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, many treatment options may be presented to you. For some, surgery may be the best option. In other cases, ablation, the process of destroying tumors via extreme temperatures, may be effective. For larger tumors, embolization may be offered. This form of treatment involves the injection of substances into specific arteries in an attempt to cut off blood flow to certain cancer cells. Drugs and chemotherapy may also be presented as potential treatment options. In some cases, a variety of treatment methods may also be utilized to improve treatment outcomes.Though pancreatic cancer may be difficult to prevent and manage, treatment options are being improved each year. Take care of yourself and talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms. Early diagnosis of any condition is likely to lead to better treatment outcomes.
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