Being Well

Pancreatic Cancer: Figuring Out a Silent Disease

Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer death behind only lung cancer and colon cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer death behind only lung cancer and colon cancer, reports the American Cancer Society (ACS). Over 53,000 people will be diagnosed with it this year in the United States. This cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7% of cancer deaths.

The good news is that this is not a common disease. The ACS estimates that a person’s overall lifetime chance of developing pancreatic cancer is about 1.5% meaning that relatively few people will ever receive this diagnosis.

Difficult to Detect

The reason this is one of the most difficult forms of cancer to treat is because it’s rarely diagnosed early. By the time a diagnosis is made, the cancer has usually spread beyond the pancreas to other organs. At that point, it can no longer be cured by surgery. Early detection can mean a greater chance of survival.

Can You Get Screened?

Because early detection is so difficult, why isn’t everyone screened? According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), there are no specific, cost-effective screening tests available that can reliably and readily find early-stage pancreatic cancer especially if you have no symptoms.

Currently, many diagnoses occur when a person who doesn’t have symptoms but has an abdominal CT scan for an unrelated reason which reveals cancer. The other likely scenario is that a person visits the doctor with symptoms that lead to a late-stage diagnosis. These symptoms include nausea, poor appetite, unexplained weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes), weakness, and abdominal pain.

Major academic medical centers, including the UVA Cancer Center, are working to establish evidence-based screening protocols and develop a detectable blood protein biomarker for this cancer. The hope is to someday be able to reliably diagnose while it’s still early and curable.

Understanding Your Risk

In the meantime, you’ll want to become familiar with the risk factors. You can control some risk factors but not others. For example, getting older increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The ACS reports the average age at diagnosis is 71. Men are more likely to develop it than women and African Americans are at greater risk than any other racial group, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). People who have diabetes, liver cirrhosis, or long-term inflammation of the pancreas are more likely to be diagnosed with this cancer as well.

A small percentage of people who have the disease are believed to have inherited genetic mutations that make it much more likely they will eventually develop it. For example, the BRCA gene mutations more widely associated with breast and ovarian cancers are also linked to pancreatic cancer, reports the NCI.

If you have a family history of this cancer please talk to your doctor about regular screenings. The UVA Cancer Center Pancreatic Cancer Program offers special programs for certain patients and includes a high-risk pancreatic cancer clinic and a pancreatic cyst clinic.

If you have a family history of this cancer, contact the UVA High-Risk Pancreatic Cancer Program to learn about early detection and prevention measures.

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Darcy Lewis
Darcy Lewis