Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek’s 2019 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer has shined a national spotlight on the disease, one of the most aggressive forms of cancer that is often discovered in its advanced stage.
What is pancreatic cancer?
The pancreas is an organ that is in the mid-abdomen behind the lower portion of the stomach. It produces insulin, which helps maintain normal blood glucose levels and enzymes that aid in digestion.
Because of the vague symptoms associated with the disease and the lack of good screening tests, pancreatic cancer is not usually detected at an early stage, making management difficult. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these options.
According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that 57,000 patients will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and that 46,000 will die from the disease in 2019. Cancer researchers are actively studying new ways to not only treat pancreatic cancer through early phase clinical trials, but also develop screening tests to diagnose it early. For those with pancreatic cysts or a family history of pancreatic cancer, some screening steps might help detect a problem.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until the disease is advanced. They may include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to your back
- Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
- New-onset diabetes
- Blood clots
- Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- Family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome, and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
- Older age, as most people are diagnosed after age 65
Factors that may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include:
A large study demonstrated that the combination of smoking, long-standing diabetes, and a poor diet increases the risk of pancreatic cancer beyond the risk of any one of these factors alone.
While it is not known what causes pancreatic cancer, you may reduce your risk if you:
- Stop smoking. If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, please discuss cessation with your physician, as there are likely free or low-cost smoking cessation classes near you.
- Maintain a healthy weight through a healthy diet that is rich in plants and vegetables.
- Consider meeting with a genetic counselor if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer and review your family health history to determine whether you might benefit from a genetic test to understand your risk of pancreatic cancer or other cancers.