Why Pancreatic Cancer Is One of the Toughest to Fight

Alex Trebek getting a picture taken with the Peabody Award
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Alex Trebek, host of ‘Jeopardy!’ for over 30 years, is the latest celebrity to share a difficult health diagnosis.

"Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week, I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer," he said.

With a high mortality rate and no cure, stage 4 pancreatic cancer is one of the most daunting diseases to face. In fact, it’s the third most deadly cancer in the U.S. and is on pace to be the second deadliest by the year 2020.

What makes this type of cancer so hard to overcome? The answer is a combination of factors. Challenging to screen for with symptoms that only appear once the disease has progressed, there is no easy early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Since increased awareness and preventive measures can help us avoid living with undiagnosed diseases, the best action we can take today is becoming more informed. Here’s what we know about pancreatic cancer and the hope for healing.

Screening for Pancreatic Cancer

There are no easy screenings for pancreatic cancer — like swabs, blood tests or urine samples — which is why it is often caught in later stages once symptoms arise.

If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, an MRI, CT scan or endoscopic ultrasound may be used to investigate further. However, as often is the case, if it’s large enough to show on an MRI or CT scan it’s likely too late for a lot of treatment options.

For those with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer or with a known genetic syndrome that increases their risk, endoscopic ultrasounds might be performed voluntarily as a preventive measure. Doctors are also currently studying other new tests to try to find pancreatic cancer early.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

One reason pancreatic cancer is so hard to diagnose is that it has non-specific symptoms. It may be intense stomach pain in one patient but not the next, or it could be something else entirely.

Most people with pancreatic cancer have jaundice as one of their first symptoms. Unusual weight loss is also a common symptom.

Though generally difficult to predict, there are some warning signs that you may be susceptible to the disease. Heredity and family history play a large role in determining your chances for getting this particular cancer. If you’ve suffered from chronic pancreatitis you may be at a higher risk, as well.

Certain environmental factors, such as tobacco use and exposure to other forms of carcinogens, can also play a role in determining risk. The American Cancer Society states that about 20 – 30% of pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by cigarette smoking.

Obesity and Cancer Risk

In a new report published by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, obesity is now associated with the increasing rates of multiple myeloma, colorectal, endometrial, gallbladder, kidney and pancreatic cancers found among adults ages 25 to 49 who were a part of a longitudinal study between 1995 and 2014.

With obesity rates rising among younger populations, we’re also experiencing a slow but steady increase in cancer incidence, including pancreatic cancer.

We know that obesity can play a role in cancer by triggering changes in pancreatic cells to be malignant, but we don’t fully understand why. Obese people are about 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

The key takeaway from this new research is that, in general, a commitment to nutrition and exercise — and the healthy weight they help maintain — can reduce your risk for a number of ailments, including cancer.

Looking to the Future

For pancreatic cancer, there is no simple screening option, and symptoms often do not present in the early stages of the cancer. So too commonly, pancreatic tumors are detected in advanced stages unless incidentally discovered during imaging tests for unrelated diseases or conditions.

Common treatment options for pancreatic cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, ablation or embolization, chemotherapy and medications. But at AdventHealth, we work tirelessly in the pursuit of new discoveries and better treatments. We take a personalized approach to the care of each individual; treatment for cancer and other chronic diseases is never one-size-fits-all.

Though the outlook for advanced pancreatic cancer is disheartening, we believe there’s always something that can be done to improve your quality of life and give you peace of mind. If you are diagnosed, we’re here with expertise and support to help you through this.

Learn more about the compassionate cancer care services at AdventHealth.

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