PHILADELPHIA (November 4, 2019) – November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7 percent of all cancer deaths. It is estimated that about 56,770 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 45,750 will die from the disease in 2019.
Fox Chase Cancer Center seeks to educate men and women about pancreatic disease and its risk factors.
Pancreatic cancer starts in the tissues of the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of the stomach. The pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage blood sugar.
“Typically, individuals have no symptoms of pancreatic cancer, and the most common presentation is painless jaundice, or yellowing of the skin,” explained Sanjay S. Reddy, MD, FACS, assistant professor in the Department of Surgical Oncology at Fox Chase. “Because the pancreas is located deep inside the body, early tumors cannot be seen or felt in a routine physical exam.”
While no screening tests have been shown to lower the risk of individuals dying from pancreatic cancer, there are newer tests for detecting pancreatic cancer early that can benefit individuals who are at high risk. The two most common include endoscopic ultrasound and MRI. Doctors have been able to find early, treatable pancreatic cancers in some members of high-risk families with these tests.
“Many times, routine imaging also shows incidental pancreatic findings. When discovered, these should be evaluated,” said Reddy. “The majority of incidentally found pancreatic masses are benign cysts, but being proactive in follow-up remains important.”
Several factors are known to increase one’s risk for pancreatic cancer. While some can be changed, such as those relating to lifestyle, others cannot, like age and family history.
"Having one or many risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll develop pancreatic cancer. On the same note, people who get pancreatic cancer may have few or no known risk factors,” said Reddy. “The best way to reduce your risk is to avoid or change behaviors that are known risk factors.”
- Tobacco Use
About 25 percent of pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by smoking. One’s risk of pancreatic cancer is about twice as high among smokers compared to those who have never smoked. Cigar, pipe smoking and smokeless tobacco products also increase risk.
- Overweight and Obesity
Overweight and very overweight, or obese, individuals are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Even having extra weight around the waistline in individuals who are not very overweight can raise risk.
- Workplace Exposure to Certain Chemicals
Heavy exposure at work to certain chemicals used in the dry cleaning and metal working industries may increase one’s risk of pancreatic cancer.
Although the reasons are unknown, pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes. Most risk is found in people with Type 2 diabetes.
Risk increases with age, with the average age at the time of diagnosis being 70 years old. About two-thirds of individuals with pancreatic cancer are at least 65 years old.
Men are slightly more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women.
African Americans are at a slightly higher risk than other races and ethnicities for developing pancreatic cancer.
- Family History
Certain inherited DNA changes can lead to conditions running in some families that increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Most often, however, DNA mutations of genes related to cancers of the pancreas are not inherited. “I urge individuals who have a family history of pancreatic cancer to talk with their doctor about whether they should undergo testing early, when the disease may be more easily treated,” noted Reddy.
- Chronic Inflammation of the Pancreas (Pancreatitis)
Chronic pancreatitis is linked with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer (especially in smokers), but most people with pancreatitis never develop the disease. Those with an inherited (familial) form of pancreatitis have a high lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer.
It is important for individuals with pancreatic cysts to be seen by clinicians with expertise in pancreatic masses and pathology. Fox Chase Cancer Center’s Pancreatic Cyst Clinic is designed to evaluate and treat patients with known or suspected pancreatic cysts. The Fox Chase multidisciplinary team evaluates the size, growth rate and composition of a patient’s cyst to determine if surgery or monitoring is the best treatment option. To learn more, visit FoxChase.org.