With the goal of raising awareness and supporting those currently suffering, November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
We will share the basics of pancreatic cancer throughout this article, but just remember that the best way to take action is to visit your doctor immediately — especially if you’re experiencing symptoms related to pancreatic cancer.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer develops in the pancreas, an organ that sits behind your stomach. The pancreas secretes enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help regulate the metabolism of sugars. According to the American Cancer Society, “The most common type of pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, starts when exocrine cells (cells that provide a system to secrete substances out and external to the body) in the pancreas start to grow out of control. Most of the pancreas is made up of exocrine cells that form the exocrine glands and ducts.”
While there is no exact cause of pancreatic cancer, the American Cancer Society shares certain risk factors you should be aware of:
- Tobacco Use: The risk of getting pancreatic cancer is about twice as high among smokers compared to those who have never smoked.
- Obesity: If you have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, you are about 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
- Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer is more commonly developed by people with Type 2 diabetes.
- Chronic Pancreatitis: Also known as a constant inflammation of the pancreas, pancreatitis can develop with heavy alcohol and tobacco use.
- Inherited Genes: Inherited gene mutations can be passed along from parent to child and are responsible for 10% of pancreatic cancers. Learn more about inherited gene factors here.
What are the Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer?
The reason why pancreatic cancer is often met with a discouraging outlook is that there aren’t many symptoms in the early stages. This type of cancer is often detected late, spreads rapidly and has a poor prognosis.
Later stages of pancreatic cancer are associated with symptoms, but these can also be non-specific. However, there are still certain symptoms that accompany this disease that you should look for. If you’re experiencing any of the following, contact your doctor immediately:
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
- Stomach or back pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Gallbladder or liver enlargement
- Blood clots
Diagnosing and Treating Pancreatic Cancer
If you are at an increased risk for pancreatic cancer due to family history, there are two tests to undergo that may detect it early: endoscopic ultrasounds and MRIs. You and your doctor will need to determine whether these tests are right for you. The American Cancer Society also shares these tests for potentially discovering pancreatic cancer.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after testing, the next step for your doctor is to determine your cancer’s stage. Your doctor will look at how much cancer is in the body and if it has spread.
The staging system used most often for pancreatic cancer is the TNM system, which is based on three key pieces of information:
- Tumor (T): How large is the tumor and has it grown outside the pancreas into nearby blood vessels?
- Nodes (N): Has cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes? If so, how many of the lymph nodes have cancer?
- Metastasized Sites (M): Has cancer spread to distant lymph nodes or distant organs such as the liver, peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity), lungs or bones?
Higher numbers in any of these categories mean that pancreatic cancer is more advanced, but in any case, treatment should begin as soon as possible.
Depending on the severity of your pancreatic cancer, treatment may vary. Three types of standard treatment options are:
- Surgical removal of the pancreas
How to Take Action During Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month
Being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult. A great way to find peace in this journey is to join a supportive community of those going through a similar situation. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network encourages us to spread the word about all-things pancreatic cancer.
It’s time to take action. Whether you’re fundraising for someone special, sharing stories on social media using hashtags #PANCaware or #pancreaticcancer, taking a risk assessment test, and more, you are making a difference in the world of pancreatic cancer.
Regular checkups are critical when trying to stay ahead of potentially major medical problems, especially as we get older. If you have any questions or concerns about pancreatic cancer, please consult your doctor today. You can also review our checklist for screenings.