Cancer is a terrifying diagnosis. The cells in the body grow out of control, crowding out normal cells and creating complications in the part of the body where they’re growing.
Cancer screenings and early detection have improved the survival rates with several more common cancers like breast, lung, prostate, and skin cancer. But pancreatic cancer is hard to detect, has limited screenings, and the diagnosis usually comes too late. It only accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S. but more than twice the percentage of cancer deaths — 7 percent. Only 9 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live to five years.
The Difficulty with Detection
The pancreas is a six-inch-long gland between the stomach and the spine. It makes enzymes that help with digestion and hormones that control blood-sugar levels. Its location within the body makes it difficult for doctors to feel any growths or scan. It’s blocked by the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen and bile ducts. Symptoms don’t appear until the tumor has grown very large or the cancer has spread to other organs. The symptoms are also similar to many of the symptoms of other illnesses, making it that much harder to diagnose.
Some signs or symptoms include:
• Yellow skin and eyes
• Light-colored stools
• Dark urine
• Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
• Unexplained weight loss
• Appetite loss
These are symptoms for exocrine tumors of the pancreas which are the most common pancreatic cancer.
Types of Pancreatic Tumors
Most pancreatic tumors are exocrine, meaning they start with the cells that produce digestive enzymes. About 93 percent of pancreatic cancers are this type. In nine out of 10 cases the resulting tumor is called adenocarcinoma. Other exocrine tumors include:
• Acinar cell carcinoma which causes the pancreas to make too much of an enzyme that digests fats.
• Intraductal papillary-mucinous neoplasm (IPMN) which can start benign but become cancerous, especially if it’s formed in the main pancreatic duct.
• Mucinous cystic neoplasm with an invasive adenocarcinoma is a cyst filled with thick fluid formed on the “tail” of the pancreas. It’s found mostly in women.
Realizing the Risks
There is no single cause of pancreatic cancer and it can affect anyone. It killed comedian Bill Hicks at the age of 32 while Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg battled the disease for 11 years before passing at 87. People are most often diagnosed after the age of 65.
There are factors that could increase the risk including:
• Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
• Family history of genetic syndromes that increase cancer risk
• Family history of pancreatic cancer
• Older age
While nothing can be done about aging or family history, you can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer if you:
• Don’t smoke. This includes vaping. Quit if you do. Your doctor can help with medications, support groups, or nicotine replacement therapy.
• Maintain a healthy weight. Smaller portions of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, combined with exercise, can put you on the path to losing one to two pounds a week, and help with weight loss.
• Eat healthy. A colorful variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with fewer processed foods, can help reduce the risk of numerous cancers, including pancreatic.
• Control your diabetes. Routine testing, exercise, a healthy diet, and regularly taking your medication as prescribed will help keep diabetes from becoming a contributing factor.
You may want to talk to a genetic counselor if your family has a history of pancreatic cancer. Genetic testing can help determine if you inherited similar genetic sequences. This doesn’t mean you have pancreatic cancer, but you may have inherited traits that put you at an increased risk. With that knowledge, you and your doctor can decide on whether to schedule an endoscopic ultrasound or an MRI. These tests aren’t used to screen the general public, but someone with a strong family history or a genetic syndrome is a candidate for screening.
We’re Here for You
AltaMed can help with frank discussions about family history and recommend a genetic specialist to test for the markers that may indicate a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.