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Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the United States and about 7% of all cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society projects that over 47,000 people will die of pancreatic cancer before the end of 2020. Recently, we’ve lost many well-known figures to this deadly disease, including Alex Trebek, Aretha Franklin, Patrick Swayze, Steve Jobs and Karl Lagerfeld — among many others.
This type of cancer is so hard to overcome for several reasons; most of all, it’s challenging to screen for, with symptoms that only appear once the disease has progressed, meaning 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.
Screening for Pancreatic Cancer
"Catching any cancer early on is the key to surviving it," says J. Pablo Arnoletti, MD, Chief of Surgical Oncology at AdventHealth Cancer Institute. But it may be very difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer, which is why it is commonly found in more advanced stages.
There are no easy tests for it — no swabs, blood or urine tests, or anything to help diagnose it early. Screening for pancreatic cancer is done through imaging with an MRI, CT scan or an endoscopic ultrasound. However, as often is the case, if it’s large enough to show on an MRI or CT scan, it may already be advanced and treatment options may be limited. For high-risk patients, Dr. Arnoletti recommends getting an endoscopic ultrasound and high-quality cross-sectional imaging at a hospital that deals with a high volume of pancreatic cancer cases, as they can detect smaller masses and the staff are better prepared to identify it.
Recognizing Possible Symptoms
The most important thing is to listen to your body. If pain or discomfort is not going away after a week or so, discuss it with your doctor. “Many patients experience no symptoms at all until the cancer has reached more advanced stages,” explains Dr. Arnoletti.
However, some symptoms that those with pancreatic cancer have experienced include:
Pain in Your Side
Feeling chronic pain in your side between your ribs and hips could be a symptom of more frequent conditions such as appendicitis, an inflamed gallbladder or pancreatitis. All of these conditions can cause a serious, potentially lethal infection if not treated immediately. So, if you have any new pain in your abdomen, get it checked out by your doctor.
Jaundice or Yellowing of the Skin
Jaundice can be caused by many other diseases, but it is a common first sign of pancreatic cancer. Jaundice is a yellow pigment that appears in the white of your eyes or skin.
This can happen with pancreatic cancer because it can occur near or press on the common bile duct, which delivers bile from the liver to the small intestines to break down digestive fat. Bile contains a yellow-brown substance called bilirubin, which can build up in the body if the bile duct is blocked by a tumor.
Additional symptoms of jaundice include:
- Darker urine
- Itchy skin
- Lighter and greasier stools
Unexplained Weight Loss and Lower Appetite
A decreased appetite and unintended weight loss are common symptoms of any malignancy, including pancreatic cancer. Because the pancreas plays a role in digestion by producing insulin and pancreatic enzymes, it’s possible that pancreatic cancer can interfere in the normal digestive process, leading to these two symptoms.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
It's also important to be aware if you have risk factors for pancreatic cancer, so you can pay closer attention to possible symptoms and talk to your doctor about how you can monitor your pancreatic health.
Some of these risk factors can include:
- Pre-malignant conditions such as mucin-producing pancreatic cysts
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
- Personal history of chronic pancreatitis
- Exposure to environmental carcinogens
Treating Pancreatic Cancer at AdventHealth
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. Experience is very important as it has been shown to improve pancreatic cancer outcomes. We take a personalized approach to the care of each individual. It is essential for pancreatic cancer patients to be evaluated and treated by a multi-disciplinary team of specialists with expertise in this difficult disease. Treatment for cancer and other chronic diseases is never one-size-fits-all. Our Cancer Institute has assembled a team of experienced experts that provide the latest innovations in treatment and access to new clinical trials.
Though the outlook for advanced pancreatic cancer may be 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 AdventHealth Cancer Institute.