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Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month Takes Aim at a Complicated & Elusive Foe

There are many types of cancers, and some are much better known than others thanks to public awareness campaigns and high-profile treatment breakthroughs. Still, every type of cancer merits attention so that people can be aware of their risk, as well as take steps to lessen their exposure.

That’s why November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and Nov. 21, 2019, is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. While this type of cancer may not be as prominent as others in the public eye, it deserves notice. According to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research:

  • Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.
  • In 2019 an estimated 56,770 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., and more than 45,750 will die from the disease.
  • It is expected to move to the second position by 2020.
  • Every day, more than 1,250 people worldwide will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer is the only major cancer with a single-digit, five-year survival rate of 9 percent.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer

As with other cancers, there’s no set way to determine who will or won’t contract the disease. That said, pancreatic cancer is more likely for people in certain risk groups, or with certain behaviors, including:

Smoking: People who smoke are more likely than nonsmokers to get pancreatic cancers; and the more you smoke, the higher the risk. (Thinking of quitting? November is also the Great American Smokeout, so join thousands of others who are kicking the habit — learn more from our previous blog.)

Diabetes: Those with type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

Family history: An immediate relative—mother, father, sister or brother—with pancreatic cancer greatly increases the risk, as much as two to three times.

Inflammation of the pancreas: If you have pancreatitis for a long time, so much so that it is chronic, that also increases the risk.

Obesity: If you are overweight or obese, the risk also is slightly elevated.

Ethnicity: African-Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer, as do Ashkenazi Jews.

Genetic makeup: Individuals with Lynch syndrome and certain other genetic syndromes, as well as BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers, may also have a higher risk.

Researchers are digging into other elements that may contribute to pancreatic cancer, everything from a high-fat diet to heavy consumption of alcohol. There also is a study being done around tying certain genes to the disease. Even so, many people who get pancreatic cancer don't fall into any of these areas, so there remains much work to be done.

Many other possible risk factors are under active study. For example, researchers are studying whether a diet high in fat (especially animal fat) or heavy drinking of alcoholic beverages may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Another area of active research is whether certain genes increase the risk of disease.

Many people who get pancreatic cancer have none of these risk factors, and many people who have known risk factors don’t develop the disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

One reason pancreatic cancer is so deadly is that it causes few, if any, early symptoms. By the time problems are showing, the disease can be fairly advanced, or have spread outside the pancreas. Here are some indicators that there’s a problem:

Jaundice and related symptoms: A yellowing of the eyes and skin is a common and early manifestation of pancreatic cancer.

Dark urine: Jaundice also can be accompanied by darker urine.

Belly or back pain: Pain in the abdomen or back is common in pancreatic cancer. Cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas can grow fairly large and press on nearby organs, causing pain. The cancer may also spread to nerves surrounding the pancreas, leading to back pain.

Weight loss and poor appetite: Unintended weight loss is very common in people with pancreatic cancer.

Nausea and vomiting: The cancer may partly block the far end of the stomach, making it hard for food to get through. This can cause nausea, vomiting, and pain that tend to be worse after eating.

Gall bladder or liver enlargement: If the cancer blocks the bile duct, bile can build up in the gallbladder, making it larger.

Blood clots: Sometimes, the first clue that someone has pancreatic cancer is a blood clot in a large vein, often in the leg.

Abnormalities can be detected in routine blood work, another reason why it’s important to have an annual physical. Also, if there is a history of pancreatic cancer in your family or if you fall into one of the higher-risk categories, make your doctor aware of that as well. Take November as the opportunity to get your health back on track with a checkup and head off pancreatic cancer—as well as many other illnesses and conditions—with awareness and proactive steps toward a healthier lifestyle.