According to the American Cancer Society, this year over 62,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite the poor prognosis and the fact that the illness is mostly incurable, pancreatic cancer can be the cured if detected early enough. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “up to 10 percent of patients who get an early diagnosis will be cancer-free after treatment.” The typical survival time for pancreatic cancer is 3 to 3.5 years for people who are diagnosed before the tumor grows or spreads. Baptist Health South Florida spoke with Dr. Horacio Asbun, Chief of Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Surgery at Miami Cancer Institute, who shed light on what pancreatic cancer is and how to recognize the indicators.
Who has an increased Risk for Pancreatic Cancer and Why?
The average age at which pancreatic cancer is diagnosed is 68, with risks increasing after age 45. Pancreatic cancer affects more men than women. There’s also a higher occurrence for African-Americans and those of Ashkenazi Jewish background. However, other factors may be involved, and the reasons for the increased risk aren’t always obvious. Some hereditary or familial factors are linked to about 10% of pancreatic cancers. Those with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation (most often associated with ovarian and breast cancer) have a 3 to 10-fold greater chance of getting Pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is also more likely in individuals with a PALB2 mutation, as well as people with FAMMM (familial atypical multiple mole melanoma), Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome, Lynch Syndrome, or hereditary pancreatitis. Those who have a first-degree relative that has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have a slightly greater risk.
Signs of Pancreatic Cancer that are Most Concerning
“Unfortunately, all signs of pancreatic cancer are not specific because they do not usually show up until the disease is advanced,” according to Dr. Asbun. If pancreatic cancer is suspected based on symptoms, an MRI or endoscopic ultrasound may be done. Occasionally, pancreatic cancer is found when someone has an MRI or CT scan for a different reason. A CA 19-9 blood test result might suggest cancer, but not everyone who has pancreatic cancer will have a high CA 19-9 level.
That said, some of pancreatic cancer’s most common symptoms include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- The skin or whites in eyes turning yellow (jaundice)
- New diagnosis of diabetes or worsening diabetes
- Pain in the back or upper abdomen
- Large, greasy stools and dark urine. Call a medical expert if you develop any of these.