Pancreatic cancer doesn’t always show symptoms right away

November 8, 2020 Swedish Health Team

Pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose and doesn’t always exhibit symptoms right away.

  • November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
  • Find out about risk factors and prognosis.
  • Learn how exercise can help.

[3 MIN READ]

November is pancreatic cancer awareness month. This uncommon, but serious, cancer has been in the news lately with the recent passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg lost her 11-year battle to pancreatic cancer in September. Her death has brought pancreatic cancer into the spotlight and many people may be wondering how common it is and what screening tests are available for the disease. 

Here, we share answers to commonly asked questions about pancreatic cancer.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the pancreas or the bile ducts around the pancreas. There are two types of pancreatic cancer:

  • Exocrine pancreatic cancer occurs when the exocrine cells in the pancreas grow out of control. This is the most common type of pancreatic cancer. Exocrine glands make the enzymes that help digest food in the intestine. 
  • Endocrine pancreatic cancer is less common and occurs when endocrine cells in the pancreas grow out of control. Endocrine glands make hormones, like insulin, which are released directly into the blood.

Pancreatic cancers only account for about 3% of all cancers in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. Roughly 57,600 individuals are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year.

What is the prognosis for someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer?

An individual’s prognosis for pancreatic can vary greatly based on many different factors, including:

  • Type of pancreatic cancer
  • Size of the tumor
  • Stage of the disease
  • If the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas (metastasized) 
  • Overall health and wellness of the individual

Pancreatic cancer is often discovered when it is in its later stages. There is no screening test and symptoms are easy to confuse for other conditions. In fact, most people aren’t diagnosed until it has spread outside of the pancreas. Because of this, overall survival rates are lower than other cancers. 

However, research and innovations in treatments, therapies and diagnosis are offering new hope for individuals diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

What new treatments are available for pancreatic cancer?

Research is paving the way for better understanding of pancreatic cancer and leading to more effective treatments. According to the American Cancer Society, these are just a few of the promising advances in detecting and treating pancreatic cancer: 

  • Identifying genetic changes that may cause pancreatic cancer and working toward developing tests that identify these changes.
  • Determining if a minimally invasive procedure to remove the pancreas offers better outcomes compared to the current treatment standard of open surgery.
  • Looking at different ways to use radiation treatment to treat cancer, including intraoperative radiation, for example.
  • Identifying and testing new combinations of chemotherapy drugs.  
  • Studying how targeted therapy can work alongside or in place of other treatments.
  • Investigating how immunotherapy may help attack cancer cells.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer in its early stages usually presents without any obvious symptoms.  Individuals, however, may experience: '

  • Jaundice
  • Dark urine
  • Light or greasy stools
  • Itchy skin
  • Stomach pain
  • Back pain
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Gallbladder enlargement
  • Liver enlargement
  • Blood clots (deep vein thrombosis)

Since these symptoms can also be related to other health conditions, it is always advisable to seek care from a medical provider if you have any concerns.

Does exercise help pancreatic cancer?

Justice Ginsburg was well-known for her exercise routine. While that may not be the only reason she lived with pancreatic cancer for 11 years (and colon cancer several years before that), research suggests it certainly may have helped. 

Exercise can help cancer patients with everything from fighting fatigue to improving mood and, of course, strengthening the body:

  • People with cancer who regularly exercise have 40 to 50 percent less fatigue than those that don’t exercise. 
  • Exercise has no negative side effects for people with cancer and can reduce the effects of treatment, including bone loss, muscle loss and nerve damage. It can help boost self-esteem and maintain mental health.

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

Sometimes, people develop cancer without any risk factors. However, it’s important to be aware of how lifestyle can affect your chances of developing cancer and discuss any of these with your doctor, especially if you are showing any symptoms. 

The most common risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Diabetes
  • Family history
  • Gender (men are slightly more at risk of pancreatic cancer than women)
  • Inherited genetic syndromes 
  • Older age (average age of diagnosis is 70)
  • Race (African Americans are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer)
  • Smoking
  • Workplace exposure to certain chemicals (dry cleaning, metal working industries)

If you’re worried about your risk of pancreatic cancer or you have any questions about your overall health, talk to your primary care provider. 

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Find out what we’re doing to keep you safe when you visit.

Related resources

Swedish comprehensive cancer rehabilitation program

Spotlight: Acupuncture for Cancer Patients

American Cancer Society: Signs of Pancreatic Cancer

Exercise During Cancer Treatment

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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