Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer, with more than 57,000 Americans
expected to be diagnosed in 2020. In Maryland, it’s the third leading
cause of cancer death after lung and colorectal cancer. This year alone,
the American Cancer Society estimates that 1,070 Marylanders will be diagnosed with this disease, and 870 will
die from it.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Located in the abdomen between the stomach and spine, your
pancreas is an organ that plays an important role in converting the food you eat
into fuel for your body’s cells. It has two main functions: aiding
in digestion and regulating blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer begins when
abnormal pancreas cells grow out of control, forming a tumor. Depending
on the type of cell cancer forms in, pancreatic tumors are either
Nearly 93 percent of pancreatic cancers begin in
exocrine cells, which produce enzymes aiding in digestion. About 7 percent of pancreatic
neuroendocrine, forming in the cells that create hormones to control blood sugar levels.
One of the reasons the survival rate of pancreatic cancer is so low—only
about 10 percent of patients survive five years with the disease—
is because there are rarely any
symptoms in the early stages. Once symptoms are detected, the tumor has usually
grown very large or spread to other parts of the body.
Having one or more of the following symptoms does not necessarily mean
you have pancreatic cancer. In fact, many of these symptoms are more likely
caused by other conditions. Still, if you notice any of these symptoms,
it’s important to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin, also known as jaundice
- Persistent pain in your back or belly
- Unintentional weight loss
- Little or no appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Enlarged gallbladder or liver
- Blood clots
Different types of cancer have various risk factors. With pancreatic cancer,
there are some risk factors you can control and others you have no control
over. Risk factors you can’t control include:
Your age. Your risk of this type of cancer increases as you age; almost all pancreatic
cancer patients are older than 45. The average age of diagnosis is 70.
Your gender. Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women.
According to the
American Cancer Society, this may be because men are heavier smokers.
Your race. Black people are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than
Your family history. Some families have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer, sometimes due to an
inherited genetic syndrome. It’s important to know your family's medical history and tell
your doctor if anyone in your immediate family has had pancreatic cancer.
By living a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of developing pancreatic
cancer. Risk factors you can control include:
Tobacco use. Smokers have nearly twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer than
non-smokers. Approximately 25 percent of pancreatic cancers are
caused by cigarette smoking. However, your risk can be reduced if you quit smoking. Need help? Join our
Smoking Cessation Program.
Being overweight. Obese people are about 20 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
Gaining weight as an adult can also increase your risk, and
carrying extra weight around your waistline can be a risk factor even if you aren’t very
Workplace exposure to chemicals. You may have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer if you’re heavily
certain chemicals in the workplace, especially in the dry cleaning and metalworking industries.
Heavy alcohol use.
Excessive drinking can cause chronic pancreatitis, a disorder causing long-term inflammation
of the pancreas.
Diagnosis and Treatment
To be sure of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, your doctor must get information
from various tests and samples. For the most accurate diagnosis, your
- Review your family and medical history
- Perform a physical exam
- Possibly order blood, urine, and stool tests
- Order an imaging study, like a CT scan or MRI
To get an exact diagnosis, your doctor also needs to collect a biopsy—a
tissue sample—of the tumor. During a biopsy, a pathologist looks
at tissue samples under a microscope. The shape, size, and arrangement
of the cells can help the pathologist determine the type of cancer.
No one should face pancreatic cancer alone. If you think you might have
pancreatic cancer or if you need treatment, our MD Anderson Cancer Network™
certified physicians are here to help you every step of the way.
Learn more about our cancer services by visiting
FrederickHealth.org/Cancer or calling 240-566-4100.