Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.
More than 200,000 people world wide will die from Pancreatic Cancer each year. Little is known about the causes of pancreatic cancer. The disease is difficult to diagnose in its early stages, as it presents few symptoms and there are few tests to screen for it. As a result, most patients have incurable disease by the time they are diagnosed. Fewer than 5 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive five years beyond diagnosis of the disease.
Pancreatic Cancer: Gastrointestinal Symptoms
Because pancreatic cancer grows around important areas of the digestive system, gastrointestinal symptoms often predominate:
- Abdominal pain. More than 80% of people with pancreatic cancer eventually experience some abdominal pain as the tumor grows. Pancreatic cancer can cause a dull ache in the upper abdomen radiating to the back. The pain may come and go.
- Bloating. Some people with pancreatic cancer have a sense of early fullness with meals (satiety) or an uncomfortable swelling in the abdomen.
- Pale-colored stools. If the duct draining bile into the intestine is blocked by pancreatic cancer, the stools may lose their brown color and become pale or clay-colored. Urine may become darker.
Pancreatic Cancer: Constitutional (Whole-Body) Symptoms
As it grows and spreads, pancreatic cancer affects the whole body. Constitutional symptoms can include:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Elevated blood sugars. Some people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes as the cancer impairs the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin. (However, the vast majority of people with a new diagnosis of diabetes do not have pancreatic cancer.)
Pancreatic Cancer: Skin Symptoms
Jaundice: As pancreatic cancer blocks the duct that releases bile into the intestine (common bile duct), the ingredients of bile build up in the blood. This turns the skin and the eyes yellow, a condition called jaundice. The same blockage causes dark urine and light-colored stools.
Itching: People with pancreatic cancer sometimes report itching all over. Blockage of the bile ducts is often responsible.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer may include:
- Family history: 5–10% of pancreatic cancer patients have a family history of pancreatic cancer. The genes have not been identified. Pancreatic cancer has been associated with the following syndromes: autosomal recessive ataxia-telangiectasia and autosomal dominantly inherited mutations in the BRCA2 gene and PALB2 gene, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome due to mutations in the STK11 tumor suppressor gene, hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome), familial adenomatous polyposis, and the familial atypical multiple mole melanoma-pancreatic cancer syndrome (FAMMM-PC) due to mutations in the CDKN2A tumor suppressor gene.There may also be a history of familial pancreatitis.
- Age. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most cases occur after age 60, while cases before age 40 are uncommon.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoking has a risk ratio of 1.74 with regard to pancreatic cancer; a decade of nonsmoking after heavy smoking is associated with a risk ratio of 1.2.
- Diets low in vegetables and fruits
- Diets high in red meat. Processed meat consumption is positively associated with pancreatic cancer risk, and red meat consumption was associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer in men.
- Diets high in sugar-sweetened drinks (soft drinks). In particular, the common soft drink sweetener fructose has been linked to growth of pancreatic cancer cells.
- Diabetes mellitus is both risk factor for pancreatic cancer, and, as noted earlier, new onset diabetes can be an early sign of the disease.
- Chronic pancreatitis has been linked, but is not known to be causal. The risk of pancreatic cancer in individuals with familial pancreatitis is particularly high.
- Helicobacter pylori infection
- Gingivitis or periodontal disease
Although there’s no proven way to prevent pancreatic cancer, you can take steps to reduce your risk, including:
- Stop smoking. If you smoke, stop. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you stop, including support groups, medications and nicotine replacement therapy. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you currently have a healthy weight, work to maintain it. If you need to lose weight, aim for a slow, steady weight loss — 1 or 2 pounds (0.5 or 1 kilogram) a week. Combine daily exercise with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains with smaller portions to help you lose weight.
- Choose a healthy diet. A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains may help reduce your risk of cancer.