In recent weeks, there has been a heightened awareness of pancreatic cancer following the deaths of Apple, Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and Ralph Steinman, a cell biologist who died several days before being named one of three winners for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Unfortunately, the spotlight on pancreatic cancer reveals disturbing statistics that illustrate just how far we have to go in beating this “silent” disease:
- Pancreatic cancer is the 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer and the 4th leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
- Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all the major cancers: 94% of patients die within five years of diagnosis and only 6% survive more than five years. 75% of patients with pancreatic cancer die within the first year of diagnosis.
- Unlike many other cancers, the survival rate for the disease has not improved substantially in nearly 40 years. Since 1975, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer has improved only from 3% to 6%.
- Among the cancers with the highest mortality rates, pancreatic cancer is the only one that still has a five-year survival rate in the single digits.
- The number of new pancreatic cancer cases and the number of deaths caused by the disease are also increasing–not decreasing. The number of new cases is projected to increase by 55% between the years 2010 and 2030.
Cancer of the pancreas is sometimes called a “silent” disease because symptoms are not usually present in early stages. Also, because the pancreas is hidden behind other organs, health care providers cannot see or feel the tumors during routine exams. By the time a person has symptoms, the cancer is usually large and has spread to other organs. This is the main reason that people with this cancer often have a poor outlook.
Symptoms that do develop are often vague. Individuals may experience different symptoms depending on the location, type and stage of the tumor. Symptoms that commonly lead to diagnosis include: jaundice, abdominal and/or back pain, unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite.
A person with advanced pancreatic cancer may also experience a buildup of fluid in the abdominal cavity and blood clots. Blood clots most often form in the legs and may easily go unnoticed. Symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, digestive difficulties and depression may occur at any time. Risk Factors
- Being over the age of 60
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
- Chronic pancreatitis
- African-American decent
- Having diabetes
- Physical inactivity
There are several methods of treatment for people with pancreatic cancer, depending on the type and stage of the cancer. Treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biological therapies and/or complementary and alternative therapies.
Some patients may receive one or more of these treatments. Clinical trials in pancreatic cancer are also available and should also be considered when selecting a treatment option.
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American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
National Library of Medicine