November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, dedicated to raising awareness of the risks and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Despite accounting for only 3% of all cancers, pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the United States according to the American Cancer Society. An estimated 57,600 adults will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year alone. Sadly, approximately 47,050 people will die from the disease in 2020.

The survival rate for pancreatic cancer improves significantly when the cancer is detected early and removed. When pancreatic cancer is caught in the localized stage before it has spread from the pancreas, the 5-year survival rate is 37%. If it has progressed to distant parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate drops to just 3%.

Unfortunately, a lack of early-stage symptoms and screening means most cases are not diagnosed in the localized stage. However, the sooner a patient receives a diagnosis and treatment, the greater their chances are for surviving, which is why knowing the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer (along with your own risk for developing it) is paramount.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Although symptoms of pancreatic cancer often only occur in the late stages of the disease, that’s not always the case. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen or mid-back
  • Ascites (buildup of fluid in the abdomen)
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Indigestion and/or nausea
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and/or eyes)
  • Stool changes
  • Pancreatitis
  • Sudden-onset Type 2 diabetes
  • Blood clots

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
Although there is no routine screening for pancreatic cancer, there are risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer. Many of these can be eliminated or controlled through healthy lifestyle choices. If you are a high-risk patient, you may be eligible for a screening program. Risk factors that may increase your chances of developing pancreatic cancer include:

  • Chronic pancreatitis and/or hereditary pancreatitis
  • Genetics
    • Having two or more first-degree relatives with pancreatic cancer or one who developed the disease before the age of 50
    • Having an inherited genetic syndrome associated with pancreatic cancer, including certain hereditary breast, colon, ovarian and skin cancers
  • Ethnicity
    • There is a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer among African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jews.
  • Age
    • The majority of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over the age of 60.
  • Diabetes
    • Long-standing, more than 5 years
  • Obesity
    • Obese people have a 20% increased risk compared to people of healthy weight.
  • Smoking
    • People who smoke have double the risk of people who have never smoked.
    • Smoking may cause 20% to 30% of all exocrine pancreatic cancer.
  • Diet & Alcohol
    • High consumption of red meat and processed meats may increase your risk.
    • People who drink more than three alcoholic beverages daily have a higher risk.
  • Poor Oral Health
    • Studies show that people with a history of periodontal disease have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, even when controlling for other risk factors.
  • Environmental Chemicals
    • Exposure to certain chemicals (such as pesticides, benzidine, asbestos, benzene, some dyes and petrochemicals) may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Although research on screening and treatment for pancreatic cancer continues, there is currently no routine screening available that lowers the risk of dying from pancreatic cancer. For patients with a significant family history of pancreatic cancer or certain genetic syndromes that put them at high risk for the disease, imaging tests such as MRI or endoscopic ultrasound may be warranted to detect any pancreatic cancer development in the early stage.

The team at GastroIntestinal Specialists, A.M.C., treats multiple conditions and diseases of the GI tract. Our Board-Certified physicians have over 150 years of combined experience in providing quality care that you can trust. To schedule an appointment, call  (318) 631-9121 or click here.