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Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors and Symptoms

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In 2020 an estimated 57,600 Americans were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S. Sadly, more than 47,050 lost their lives to the disease. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, with more people dying from pancreatic cancer than breast cancer. Can anything be done to prevent this dangerous disease? How can you tell if you are experiencing symptoms and who is most at risk throughout their lives? We’re providing these answers so that you can stay vigilant and stay safe.

As with all forms of cancer, early detection is crucial to survival. While pancreatic cancer is mostly incurable, if caught early, it can be treated. Up to ten percent of early diagnosed patients who receive treatment can become cancer-free. The average survival time is three to three-and-a-half years for those who receive a diagnosis before the tumor spreads or grows.

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is an abdominal organ that lies behind the lower part of the stomach. The pancreas releases enzymes that help with digestion and creates hormones to help manage blood sugar. Cancerous and non-cancerous tumors can grow in the tissues of the organ. The most common form of cancer begins in the cells that line the ducts that move enzymes out of the organ. This type of tumor is known as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Pancreatic cancer often does not cause any symptoms until it spreads to nearby organs, which is partly why it has such a high fatality rate. When patients do begin to experience symptoms, they often include:

  • Abdominal pain often felt in the back
  • A Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Jaundice, or yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin
  • Fatigue
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • Onset diabetes, or difficulty controlling an existing case of diabetes
  • Blood clots

Who is at Risk of Pancreatic Cancer?

Many controllable factors can increase one’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer, as well as some uncontrollable risk factors. The following can all increase one’s risk of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis:

  • Smoking: Smokers have nearly two times as high of a risk of developing pancreatic cancer as non-smokers; about 25% of pancreatic cancer cases are believed to be caused by cigarette smoking.
  • Age: Most pancreatic cancer patients are over age 45, and the average age at diagnosis is 70.
  • Family History: There is some indication that pancreatic cancer may run in families.
  • Sex: Men are at a greater risk than women, although this may be associated with their higher tobacco use rate.
  • Diet: People whose diets are high in sugar or red meat are at increased pancreatic cancer risk.
  • Obesity: Individuals with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more are about 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic Pancreatitis: This is a condition marked by long-term pancreas inflammation. It is often associated with heavy smoking and alcohol use.
  • Diabetes: Patients with diabetes, and particularly type II diabetes, are at an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Race: African Americans are slightly at greater risk of pancreatic cancer, although this may be due to their greater risk of other factors such as diabetes, obesity, and tobacco use.
  • Chemical Exposure: Individuals exposed to some chemical hazards during work, particularly metal workers and those who work near dry cleaning chemicals, are at increased risk.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Leading a healthy lifestyle, having a primary care provider, and participating in regular wellness screenings are all factors that can mitigate your risk of developing a variety of dangerous conditions. When it comes to cancer, early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to successful treatment and recovery. If you believe that you may be at risk of pancreatic cancer, or are suffering from symptoms, talk to your doctor. If you need help quitting smoking, reducing your alcohol use, or improving your diet, your doctor can provide resources to help you get healthy and lower your risk of a cancer diagnosis.