Spotlight on Pancreatic Cancer

Spotlight on Pancreatic Cancer

December 08, 2023

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal forms of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer is responsible for 7% of cancer deaths. Yet it only accounts for 3% of cancer cases. 

What makes pancreatic cancer so deadly, and what is the medical community doing about it?

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer originating in the pancreas. The pancreas is a small organ in the abdomen that makes hormones, including insulin. Insulin regulates blood glucose, the body’s primary energy source. 

Johns Hopkins Medicine describes two main categories of pancreatic cancer:

Exocrine pancreatic cancer, which originates in the exocrine gland and ducts of the pancreas. The exocrine gland creates enzymes that help the body process carbohydrates, proteins, fats and acids. The exocrine variety accounts for over 95% of pancreatic cancers, the most common being adenocarcinoma (cancer of the lining of the ducts). 

Endocrine pancreatic cancer, which originates in the cells of the endocrine gland. The endocrine gland supplies insulin and glucagon (another hormone involved in regulating blood sugar) to the bloodstream. Endocrine pancreatic cancer is far less common, making up just 5% of cases. 

Why is pancreatic cancer so deadly?

According to a blog post by cancer researcher Dr. Steven Grossman, there are several reasons pancreatic cancer is so deadly:

It’s hard to pinpoint a patient’s risk. 

There are no concrete risk factors for pancreatic cancer, and only a small percentage of cases are believed to be inherited. 

There is no standard screening tool. 

Regular CT scans could detect pancreatic cancer, but the cumulative effects of radiation exposure outweigh the benefits. Researchers are pursuing blood tests as an option, but a standard blood test won’t be available anytime soon. 

Symptoms are often subtle (or nonexistent). 

People with pancreatic cancer often don’t have any symptoms until the disease has spread. Once the first symptoms do appear, the tumor is usually inoperable. This is because of the pancreas’s position in the abdomen and because pancreatic tumors often grow around blood vessels. 

The tumors are hard (or impossible) to remove.

Even if a patient is lucky enough to catch pancreatic cancer early, removal of the tumor is complicated and risky. For many, it isn’t even an option. Among those who can have the tumor removed, the cancer usually recurs. 

Additionally, unlike breast cancer, you can’t remove the pancreas as a preventive measure. The pancreas is an essential organ. 

Pancreatic cancer doesn’t respond well to breakthrough treatments. 

Immunotherapies and targeted therapies that work well for other types of cancer do not work on pancreatic cancer. 

Warning signs of pancreatic cancer

The American Cancer Society says symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Jaundice 
  • Sharp pain in the back or lower abdomen
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Diabetes
  • Blood clots
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Decreased appetite

What can you do?

While scientists have yet to establish concrete risk factors for pancreatic cancer, there are measures you can take to minimize your risk of cancer in general. The American Cancer Society says to:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Avoid red meats, processed meats, sugary beverages and processed foods.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Quit smoking (if you smoke). 
  • Limit your exposure to carcinogens.

More research is needed

A study published in the journal Cancer Research estimates pancreatic cancer will outpace breast, prostate and colorectal cancer by 2030. This will make pancreatic cancer the second-leading cause of cancer-related death. 

Despite the growing concern over pancreatic cancer, the research is still in its infancy. Cancer researchers are working tirelessly on screening tools and treatment options for pancreatic cancer. They hope to arrive at similar options to new therapies that have worked so well for other types of cancer.  

If you’d like to contribute to this lifesaving research, visit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network