Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month started on a somber and sobering note as news spread of Alex Trebek’s passing on November 8th. America’s beloved game show host was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in March of 2019. While he fought the disease valiantly, he ultimately succumbed to the disease that is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the nation each year. In fact, statistics show that less than 10% of all Americans with Pancreatic Cancer live 5 years past their diagnosis. With such a high mortality rate, it is important to raise awareness of and educate ourselves on the potential risks, causes, and symptoms of this unforgiving disease - before it’s too late. 

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

As the name suggests, pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the pancreas. This malignant tumor consists of cells that continue to live after normal cells would die due to a mutation in the cell’s DNA. Left unaddressed, the tumor will grow and begin further impacting the functions of the pancreas and ultimately the organs that depend on it to properly function themselves.   

There are two different types of cancers that form in the pancreas: exocrine and neuroendocrine tumors. The type of cancer is identified based on the type of cell where the tumor begins. Exocrine tumors begin in the exocrine cells and make up over 90% of all pancreatic cancer diagnoses. Exocrine cells line the pancreatic ducts and help with the digestion of foods as they enter the small intestine.

Another type of pancreatic cancer, although less common, is a neuroendocrine tumor. These tumors form from the abnormal growth of endocrine cells, which make hormones to help regulate blood-sugar levels. 

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer and am I at Risk?

Unfortunately, doctors are still unsure of what causes pancreatic cancer, which also means it’s more difficult to confidently identify those who are at serious risk of developing the disease. However, there are factors that doctors believe have a tendency to increase the risk in some people. More general risks include age, gender, diabetes, excessive alcoholism, and pancreatitis. Lifestyle risks include smoking and obesity. Lastly, some are predisposed to genetic risks due to certain genes being passed down through their parents. 

Are There Early Warning Signs of Pancreatic Cancer?

Currently, there are no common early warning signs of pancreatic cancer, a fact that contributes heavily to the high mortality rate of the disease. With no early warning signs, the symptoms that do begin presenting themselves often indicate a cancer that has already progressed into the late 3rd and 4th stages of the cancer. In fact, the symptoms most often associated with pancreatic cancer are also symptoms that can be attributed to a number of other, often more common ailments. These symptoms include:

  • Jaundice
  • Back Pain
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight Loss 
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Elevated Blood Sugars
  • Dark Colored Urine
  • Light Colored Stool 

It is important to know that the appearance of any of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have pancreatic cancer. However, if any of these symptoms persist or worsen, this indicates a more serious problem for which one should consult one of our physicians. While there is no reliable screening that detects pancreatic cancer, our physicians can use other tools and tests to help diagnose your ailment and get you on a treatment plan.