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About Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest five-year survival rate, 6 percent, among major cancers in the United States. The reasons largely have to do with the fact that it is difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer; there are either no symptoms or the symptoms are mistaken for other, more common illnesses.

The pancreas is an organ in the digestive tract whose two major functions are to help break down the fats and proteins in food (exocrine function) so that the body can properly use them and to help make hormones such as insulin (endocrine function) that balance sugar in the body.

Tumors can develop in either of the two types of cells in the pancreas, but the cause of pancreatic cancer remains largely unknown. Scientists have identified risk factors for pancreatic cancer, but they are wide-ranging. They include:

  • Age; almost 90 percent of patients are older than 55.
  • Men have pancreatic cancer slightly more than women.
  • People who smoke are two to three times more likely to wind up with pancreatic cancer.
  • People who are obese and those who don’t exercise much are more at risk.
  • People who have diabetes are more at risk, as are those who have pancreatitis, a long-term inflammation of the pancreas.
  • Family history; although pancreatic cancer can run in families, genetic links are just beginning to be identified that could be useful in future diagnoses.

Because symptoms are often not recognized, pancreatic cancer often is too advanced to eradicate once it is diagnosed. Symptoms can include weight loss, jaundice, nausea, vomiting, back pain and abdominal pain, all of which also can be attributed to other illnesses.

The best treatment for pancreatic cancer, if it is discovered in time, is surgery to remove the tumor. Surgery is typically followed by chemotherapy, radiation or both. Physicians may decide to try chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of therapies because the tumor cannot be surgically removed. The goal of chemotherapy and radiation are to kill the cancer cells or stop them from growing.

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Patients and advocates were pleased when the U.S. House of Representatives in September passed the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act.

The legislation would, among other measures, require the National Cancer Institute to create a long-term plan to speed progress and improve outcomes for cancers that are especially deadly, such as pancreatic and lung cancer. The goal is to create a research plan that would help in the development of early detection methods for such cancers and effective treatment options.

The U.S. Senate is expected to consider the bill when it reconvenes after the November election.

To learn more go to

Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month
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