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February 2019

The Nation’s Toughest Cancer Foe

In the war against cancer, one opponent has proven especially difficult to vanquish. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early, which makes survival much less likely. Doctors are working hard to learn more about this malignancy—and how to stop it.

Doctor talking with woman

Anatomy of a deadly disease

Your pancreas, located behind your stomach, makes both digestive enzymes and the hormone insulin. About 1 in 63 men and 1 in 65 women will develop pancreatic cancer in his or her lifetime. In contrast, breast cancer affects about 1 in 8 women, and 1 in 9 men will get prostate cancer.

Though it’s less common, pancreatic cancer ranks third on the list of cancer killers. Only about 8.5% of patients survive 5 years after diagnosis.

Largely, doctors say, this is because pancreatic cancer has no early symptoms. Signs include:

  • Yellowish skin and eyes

  • Pain in your upper or middle belly or back

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Weight loss and loss of appetite

But, these may not appear until after the disease has progressed and spread. This makes treatment more difficult.

Combination treatments may work best

Doctors use tests such as CT scans, ultrasounds, and biopsies to diagnose pancreatic cancer. The same types of tests also show whether the cancer has spread, helping guide treatment choices.

If the cancer is caught early enough, surgery may be the best treatment. One of the most common operations is called the Whipple procedure. Surgeons remove the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, part of the stomach, part of the small intestine, and the bile duct.

Most people with pancreatic cancer will have chemotherapy, which uses medicines to stop the growth of cancer cells. Other treatment options include radiation therapy, chemoradiation therapy, and targeted therapy. These treatments work in a different way than chemotherapy to slow cancer’s growth. Often, doctors recommend a combination of several treatments.

Take steps to stay cancer-free

Doctors don’t understand exactly why some people develop pancreatic cancer and others don’t. But they have found some factors that increase risk. These include:

  • Smoking

  • Family history

  • Obesity

  • Chronic pancreatitis, a long-term inflammation of the pancreas

  • Diabetes

You can help lower your risk for pancreatic cancer by not smoking, losing weight if you need to, and eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.


Online Medical Reviewer: Mukamal, Kenneth, MD, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 6/12/2018
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