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Pancreatic Cancer

The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States are for 2015:

About 48,960 people (24,840 men and 24,120 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
About 40,560 people (20,710 men and 19,850 women) will die of pancreatic cancer
Rates of pancreatic cancer have been fairly stable over the past several years.

Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the US, and accounts for about 7% of cancer deaths.

The average lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 67 (1.5%). A person’s risk may be altered by certain risk factors (listed in the next section).

For statistics related to survival, see the section “Pancreatic cancer survival by stage.”

 

Pancreatic Cancer: Who’s at Risk?

No one knows the exact causes of pancreatic cancer. Doctors can seldom explain why one person gets pancreatic cancer and another does not. However, it is clear that this disease is not contagious. No one can “catch” cancer from another person. Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop pancreatic cancer. A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing a disease.

Studies have found the following risk factors:
Age: The likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most pancreatic cancers occur in people over the age of 60.
Smoking: Cigarette smokers are two or three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop pancreatic cancer.
Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes than in people who do not.
Being male: More men than women are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Being African American: African Americans are more likely than Asians, Hispanics, or whites to get pancreatic cancer.
Family history: The risk for developing pancreatic cancer triples if a person’s mother, father, sister, or brother had the disease. Also, a family history of colon or ovarian cancer increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Chronic pancreatitis: Chronic pancreatitis is a painful condition of the pancreas. Some evidence suggests that chronic pancreatitis may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Other studies suggest that exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace or a diet high in fat may increase the chance of getting pancreatic cancer.

Most people with known risk factors do not get pancreatic cancer. On the other hand, many who do get the disease have none of these factors. People who think they may be at risk for pancreatic cancer should discuss this concern with their doctor. The doctor may suggest ways to reduce the risk and can plan an appropriate schedule for checkups.
Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a “silent disease” because early pancreatic cancer often does not cause symptoms. But, as the cancer grows, symptoms may include:
Pain in the upper abdomen or upper back
Yellow skin and eyes, and dark urine from jaundice
Weakness
Loss of appetite
Nausea and vomiting
Weight loss

These symptoms are not sure signs of pancreatic cancer. An infection or other problem could also cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can diagnose the cause of a person’s symptoms. Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor so that the doctor can treat any problem as early as possible.
Treatment

Many people with pancreatic cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. They want to learn all they can about their disease and their treatment choices. However, the shock and stress that people may feel after a diagnosis of cancer can make it hard for them to think of everything they want to ask the doctor. Often it helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some patients also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor-to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.

Cancer of the pancreas is very hard to control with current treatments. For that reason, many doctors encourage patients with this disease to consider taking part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are an important option for people with all stages of pancreatic cancer. The section on “The Promise of Cancer Research” has more information about clinical trials.

At this time, pancreatic cancer can be cured only when it is found at an early stage, before it has spread. However, other treatments may be able to control the disease and help patients live longer and feel better. When a cure or control of the disease is not possible, some patients and their doctors choose palliative therapy. Palliative therapy aims to improve quality of life by controlling pain and other problems caused by this disease.

The doctor may refer patients to an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer, or patients may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat pancreatic cancer include surgeons, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. Treatment generally begins within a few weeks after the diagnosis. There will be time for patients to talk with the doctor about treatment choices, get a second opinion, and learn more about the disease.

Surgery

Surgery for pancreatic cancer is a major operation. Patients need to stay in the hospital for several days afterward. Patients may feel weak or tired. Most need to rest at home for about a month. The length of time it takes to regain strength varies.
The side effects of surgery depend on the extent of the operation, the person’s general health, and other factors. Most patients have pain for the first few days after surgery. Pain can be controlled with medicine, and patients should discuss pain relief with the doctor or nurse.

Removal of part or all of the pancreas may make it hard for a patient to digest foods. The health care team can suggest a diet plan and medicines to help relieve diarrhea, pain, cramping, or feelings of fullness. During the recovery from surgery, the doctor will carefully monitor the patient’s diet and weight. At first, a patient may have only liquids and may receive extra nourishment intravenously or by feeding tube into the intestine. Solid foods are added to the diet gradually. Patients may not have enough pancreatic enzymes or hormones after surgery. Those who do not have enough insulin may develop diabetes. The doctor can give the patient insulin, other hormones, and enzymes. The section “Nutrition for Cancer Patients” has more information.
The Promise of Cancer Research

Laboratory scientists are studying the pancreas to learn more about it. They are studying the possible causes of pancreatic cancer and are researching new ways to detect tumors. They also are looking for new therapies that may kill cancer cells.
Doctors in clinics and hospitals are conducting many types of clinical trials. These are research studies in which people take part voluntarily. In these trials, researchers are studying ways to treat pancreatic cancer. Research already has led to advances in treatment methods, and researchers continue to search for more effective approaches to treat this disease.

Patients who join clinical trials have the first chance to benefit from new treatments that have shown promise in earlier research. They also make an important contribution to medical science by helping doctors learn more about the disease. Although clinical trials may pose some risks, researchers take very careful steps to protect their patients.
In trials with people who have pancreatic cancer, doctors are studying new drugs, new combinations of chemotherapy, and combinations of chemotherapy and radiation before and after surgery.

Biological therapy is also under investigation. Scientists are studying several cancer vaccines to help the immune system fight cancer. Other studies use monoclonal antibodies to slow or stop the growth of cancer.
Patients who are interested in joining a clinical study should talk with their doctor. They may want to read the NCI booklet Taking Part in Cancer Treatment Research Studies. It explains how clinical trials are carried out and explains their possible benefits and risks. NCI’s Web site at http://www.cancer.gov on the Internet provides general information about clinical trials. It also offers detailed information about specific ongoing studies of pancreatic cancer by linking to PDQ®, NCI’s cancer information database. The Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER can answer questions about cancer clinical trials and can provide information from the PDQ database.