Ask a Doc: What should I know about pancreatic cancer?

Ask a Doc: What should I know about pancreatic cancer?

Q: I’ve heard that pancreatic cancer is extremely deadly. What are the warning signs and treatment options?

Dr. John Brems, a liver and pancreatic cancer surgeon at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Ill., explains.

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month – an important observance for a cancer that in 2016 jumped from the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death to the third, surpassing breast cancer. By 2020, researchers expect it to surpass colon cancer as the second leading cause of cancer-related death.

According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an estimated 53,070 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2016, and 71 percent of patients die within the first year of diagnosis. In fact, pancreatic cancer is the only major cancer with a five-year relative survival rate in the single digits, at just 8 percent.

So, what makes this cancer so deadly?

Most pancreatic cancer begins in the cells that line the ducts of the pancreas, spreads rapidly and is seldom detected in its early stages. Signs and symptoms may not appear until pancreatic cancer has advanced past the point of surgery as a treatment option. Unlike colon cancer and breast cancer, there are no screenings or other early detection methods.

The warning signs of pancreatic cancer are often mistaken for less serious conditions. Possible warning signs include:

  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Recent onset diabetes

In addition to family history, research suggests the following factors may contribute to an increased likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Smoking
  • Over age 60
  • Of African-American heritage
  • A diet high in processed meats
  • Obesity

If you have any of these risk factors and experience any of the above symptoms, you should see your doctor right away.

So, what are the treatment options?

For patients with locally advanced pancreatic cancer – meaning the cancer has not spread outside the pancreas – a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation may be an option. The surgery used to remove the tumor is called the Whipple procedure, which removes the wide part of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, a portion of the common bile duct, gallbladder, and sometimes, part of the stomach. Afterward, the surgeon reconnects the remaining intestine, bile duct, and pancreas.

For patients with inoperable or difficult-to-reach tumors, Advocate Sherman Hospital offers a treatment called irreversible electroporation using the NanoKnife system. A team of a surgeon and an interventional radiologist precisely place nodes around the tumor that send electrical pulses into the tumor. The currents cause the cancer cells to be unbalanced and trigger cell “suicide,” which destroys the tumor. After the tumor is destroyed, the body naturally rids itself of the dead cells, which are replaced with healthy ones. Research suggests this treatment is doubling life expectancy for pancreatic cancer patients.

Though the exact causes of pancreatic cancer are not yet well understood, maintaining your overall health is an important step in the prevention of all types of cancers. Stay up to date on your annual physicals and screenings, maintain a balanced diet and healthy weight and see your doctor at the first sign of anything that seems out of the ordinary.

Related Posts


About the Author

Tonya Lucchetti-Hudson
Tonya Lucchetti-Hudson

Tonya Lucchetti-Hudson, health enews contributor, is public affairs director for Advocate Medical Group and Advocate Physician Partners.