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Why Is Pancreatic Cancer So Deadly?

Pancreatic cancer isn’t common, but it is one of the deadliest types of cancer. That’s because symptoms usually don’t surface until the cancer is already in late stages, making it difficult to treat. 

Understanding the risk factors and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as well as how it’s diagnosed and treated, may help you recognize the disease before it has a chance to progress. 

For people with pancreatic cancer, the general five-year survival rate — the percentage who live for five years after the cancer is first diagnosed and successfully treated — is 10 percent. If localized pancreatic cancer is detected at an early stage, meaning the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate climbs to 30 percent, especially if surgical removal of the tumor is still possible. 

Spotting Pancreatic Cancer Early Is Key 

Pancreatic cancer is an insidious disease, meaning that it doesn't show itself early or obviously, one of the main reasons it’s so dangerous. That said, there are some physical signs that may point to pancreatic cancer. About 80 percent to 90 percent of people with pancreatic cancer experience these symptoms before their diagnosis: 

  • Weight loss

  • Poor appetite

  • Fatigue

  • Weakness 

Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer include: 

  • Abdominal discomfort

  • Back pain

  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin

  • Amber-colored urine

  • Vomiting

  • Feeling of fullness

  • Fatty- or oily-looking stool 

Because there is no single screening test for pancreatic cancer, healthcare providers rely in part on the identification of symptoms like these to help make a diagnosis. 

Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer 

Although anyone can get pancreatic cancer, there are certain factors that can increase a person’s risk. Some of these are: 

  • Family history of pancreatic cancer

  • Inherited genetic syndromes (gene mutations)

  • High-calorie diet

  • Eating a lot of processed foods

  • High protein diet

  • Smoking

  • Drinking alcohol

  • Obesity

  • Diabetes 

People with these risk factors — particularly those with a family history of or genetic predisposition to pancreatic cancer — should consider speaking with a specialist about strategies for potentially preventing pancreatic cancer and scheduling regular tests. 

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Is Evolving 

Aside from the fact that it is hard to catch early, pancreatic cancer is also deadly because it can be tough to treat. This is because pancreatic cancer tumors don’t respond as well to commonly used cancer therapies as other, less lethal types of cancer. 

But there are treatment options, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Depending on the specific type of pancreatic cancer and when it’s diagnosed, treatment generally involves some combination of these three therapies. 

Recently, a new combination of chemotherapy drugs collectively known as FOLFIRINOX has shown promise for patients with pancreatic cancer that has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. 

When To See a Doctor 

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms like unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort or back pain, check in with your doctor. The sooner you can rule out or catch pancreatic cancer, the better off you’ll be. 

Anyone with a family history of pancreatic cancer or a genetic mutation that may make them more susceptible to the disease should contact a cancer specialist or make an appointment with a doctor who can make a referral. There may be ways you can catch this disease early.

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