Understanding pancreatic cancer

It’s estimated, more than 47,000 people in the United States will die of pancreatic cancer this year. U.S. Representative John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and beloved game show host Alex Trebek all died of the disease in 2020.

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7% of all cancer deaths.

Lewis, Ginsburg and Trebek were all diagnosed when they had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. A late diagnosis of this cancer is common. In fact, more than 80% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in stage 3 or 4.

Pancreatic cancer doesn’t have a high-risk factor group. While five percent may have a genetic syndrome putting them at higher risk, 95 percent of patients do not have a defined age range, racial or social demographic, or location risk factor.

We also don’t have an inexpensive way to screen for pancreatic cancer like we do for other types of cancers.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
  • Light-colored stools.
  • Dark urine.
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Feeling very tired.

While there’s no way to prevent pancreatic cancer, smoking and health history can play a role in your risk for the disease. Risk factors include:

  • Smoking.
  • Being very overweight.
  • Having a personal history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis.
  • Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.
  • Having certain hereditary conditions, such as:
    • Multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome.
    • Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome).
    • Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.
    • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
    • Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome.
    • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome.

For more information on pancreatic cancer, visit https://uoflbrowncancercenter.org/cancer-services/types-cancer/pancreatic-cancer.