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Pancreatic Cancer: With Awareness, There is Hope

On November 8, Alex Trebek died peacefully at home after a public battle with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. He was 80. Americans loved Trebek — our witty and charming Jeopardy game show host of 37 years.

His public battle helped to shine a light on pancreatic cancer, encouraging viewers to take any symptoms seriously and make an appointment with a doctor.

At WakeMed, we are committed to your health which often includes education about common diseases, such as pancreatic cancer. This starts by giving you knowledge to recognize and understand signs and symptoms, so you can seek help right away.

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdominal cavity, behind the stomach. It has many functions, including secreting digestive enzymes and insulin to aid in digestion and the regulation of sugar in the body.

Pancreas cancer, computer illustration

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

This disease most often affects older adults since pancreatic cancer is more commonly diagnosed between the age of 65 to 79. Males are more at risk than females.  Beyond age and gender, there are additional risk factors that can increase an individual’s chance of developing pancreatic cancer. These include smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption and a family history of pancreatic cancer. Also, chronic pancreatitis, a condition of long-term inflammation of the pancreas, increases the risk since it may lead to permanent damage of the pancreas.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

In its early stage, when cure is possible, almost all patients are asymptomatic. Once symptoms arise, the disease may have started to spread. The most common symptoms are jaundice, loss of appetite, weight loss, weakness, abdominal pain, dark urine, back pain and nausea.

Older woman describing abdominal pain during a medical appointment

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer starts with an imaging test. Often, a CT scan or an MRI is employed to visualize the tumor and to determine if it has spread (metastasized). To make a definitive diagnosis, the patient will undergo an Endoscopic Ultrasound guided biopsy procedure, where a thin tube with an ultrasound probe at the end, is passed through the mouth into the stomach and small bowel. From inside the stomach and small bowel, pictures are taken of the pancreas tumor, and a needle is passed across the wall into the tumor to obtain tissue for analysis.

To cure pancreatic cancer, all or part of the pancreas must be removed. This is possible if the cancer is confined to the pancreas, though not all patients meet this criteria at the time of diagnosis.

Often, treatment is palliative, with the goal being to slow the spread of the cancer and improve quality of life. This usually involves a mix of treatments:

  • Chemotherapy — drugs given intravenously to kill and stop the spread of the cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy — utilizing drugs to stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy — where high dose radiation is directed at the cancer to slow growth and destroy the tumor.
  • Endoscopic therapy — to open blockages caused by the tumor and to treat pain caused by the tumor.
  • Surgery — to debulk or remove the tumor.
Doctor reviewing CAT scan of human abdomen on computer monitor

What can be done to prevent pancreatic cancer?

Early detection can significantly increase the survival rate, so it’s critical to report any unusual symptoms to your doctor. Though there is no known action to prevent pancreatic cancer, reducing some known risk factors, such as smoking cessation, increasing exercise activities, eating healthy and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption may help.

What is the most common type of pancreatic cancer and typical outcomes?

There are many types of pancreatic cancers, but the most common (85%) is adenocarcinoma. Pancreatic cancer is typically aggressive. The 1-year survival rate is 28% and the 5-year survival rate is 7%.  It is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related death in the United States.  More than 57,000 people are diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas per year.

Make an appointment.

Our WakeMed clinicians are here to help. If you or a loved one has concerning symptoms, make an appointment with one of our primary care doctors who can requests testing. Learn more about our exceptional gastroenterologists who have many years of experience in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.