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Why You Should Get Screened for Pancreatic Cancer

Why You Should Get Screened for Pancreatic Cancer

It’s tempting to think that as long as you don’t feel sick, you must be healthy—right? Often that’s true, but when it’s not, the outcome can be fatal. That’s why it’s so important to get checked for illnesses that can be invisible until it’s too late, like pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common cancer in the U.S., and over 60,000 people a year are diagnosed with it. It’s also one of the deadliest forms of cancer; only about 10% of patients surviving beyond five years after their diagnosis. As scary as that sounds, there are actions you can take to reduce your risk.

Why is pancreatic cancer so deadly?

Pancreatic cancer rarely shows any symptoms until it’s advanced enough to be very hard to treat. Many people don’t get diagnosed until the disease has reached a late stage.

It’s also harder to screen for. The pancreas is located deep in the abdominal cavity, so a doctor can’t feel a tumor with a physical exam the way they might find a lump in a patient’s breast. It is also surrounded by a tough layer of tissue called the stroma. It’s hard to get past the stroma.

While early detection tests are improving, there’s no single test for pancreatic cancer. Diagnosing pancreatic cancer requires a series of tests, including imaging and biopsy, and there’s currently no standard set of tests. Often, those tests aren’t given until a patient shows symptoms.

The treatment with the best outcomes is surgery, which can remove the cancerous tissue. However, this is only an option if the tumor is caught before it spreads.

The benefits of screening

If a tumor is caught while it hasn’t spread, your chances of survival five years after diagnosis are 39 percent. Surgery is also much more effective at controlling pancreatic cancer when it’s in an early stage. However, the chances of survival for those with cancer spread throughout the body is only 1 percent.

If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, talk to a genetic counselor. They can help you determine if you should get tested for genetic mutations that might increase your risk and qualify you to be monitored more closely.

How to know if you’re at higher risk

Should you be worried about getting pancreatic cancer? It’s worth talking to your doctor about it no matter what, but there are factors that increase your risk. They include:

  • Age: Your risk increases as you reach 60 and older, and most diagnoses happen after age 45.
  • Sex: Males are slightly more likely to get pancreatic cancer than females.
  • Race and ethnicity: Black and Ashkenazi Jewish people get pancreatic cancer more often than other races and ethnicities.
  • Smoking: Smokers are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer than nonsmokers
  • Family history: People whose first-degree relatives have had pancreatic cancer are at higher risk, as are people whose close relatives have certain genetic mutations.
  • Pancreatitis: The risk is higher in people who have had chronic or hereditary pancreatitis.
  • Lifestyle: People who eat a lot of red or processed meat and have a diet high in fat, who are sedentary, or who drink a lot of alcohol may be at higher risk.
  • Exposure to chemicals: People exposed to certain substances like beta-naphthylamine, benzidine, pesticides, asbestos, benzene, and chlorinated hydrocarbons may have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Dental health: Poor dental health, including periodontal disease and tooth loss, seems to be a factor in pancreatic cancer risk.

If you have any of these symptoms, especially if you have more than one, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.


While many pancreatic cancer patients don’t show symptoms for a long time, there are signs that shouldn’t be ignored. If you have any of these, see a doctor as soon as you can:

  • Pain in your abdomen or back, especially if it’s severe and won’t go away
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes or skin
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Developing diabetes, or diabetes that has recently gotten worse
  • Frequent nausea
  • Light-colored stool and/or darker urine

Steps toward prevention

There’s no way to guarantee that you won’t get pancreatic cancer, but there are still good ways to lower your risk and prevent it. Combined with screenings, these steps give you the best chance for good pancreatic health.

  • Stop smoking: This is one of the best things that you can do to prevent pancreatic cancer.
  • Improve your lifestyle: Get regular exercise, cut back on high-fat foods, including red and processed meat, add more vegetables to your diet, and limit your alcohol intake.
  • Limit your exposure: Avoid situations where you’re exposed to high-risk chemicals, or make sure you have protective gear.
  • Take care of your teeth—Get regular dental checkups and practice good dental hygiene every day.

One study showed that the combination of smoking, poor diet, and diabetes creates a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than any one of those factors on its own.

Want to know more?

If you’re concerned about your risk of pancreatic cancer, reach out to our experts in the MD Anderson Cancer Network® at James M Stockman Cancer Institute. Because we want you healthy, Frederick.