A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Pancreatic cancer: 3 things to know

Middle-aged woman consoling a senior man - Pancreatic cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 1.6 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is, in general, a relatively aggressive form of cancer. Dr. Seth Fagbemi, a Marshfield Clinic oncologist/hematologist, said the best outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer usually occur when surgery is an option.

“After surgery, because of the risk of recurrence, which is real and relatively high, patients are offered additional treatments like chemotherapy or sometimes radiation,” Fagbemi said.

Fagbemi said it is also possible to use radiation or chemotherapy prior to surgery, in order to shrink the cancer and make surgery easier to perform. Surgery to remove pancreatic cancer is generally a challenging one because the pancreas is surrounded in the body by the stomach, liver and intestines.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Symptoms that could indicate the presence of pancreatic cancer include belly pain that radiates to the back, poor appetite and weight loss, and in severe cases, vomiting. One of the difficulties of dealing with pancreatic cancer is that symptoms may not appear until the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas, Fagbemi said.

Pancreatic cancer is detected via a biopsy.

Risk factors

Smoking and being overweight are both risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer. Some genetic abnormalities also are associated with higher risk of pancreatic cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, African Americans are a little more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than are Caucasians, and men are more likely than women to suffer from the disease.

Care is getting better over time

Thirty years ago, Fagbemi said there was little that could be done to help patients with pancreatic cancer other than surgery.

“That’s why pancreatic cancer has that aura of being so aggressive and bad, which is still true,” Fagbemi said. “But over time, we have added treatment options that improve outcomes and quality-of-life for patients.”

Fagbemi said surgical procedures and radiation therapy have improved dramatically over the years.

“It’s a bad disease, but that is not a reason to avoid being seen,” Fagbemi said. “We can help people and improve quality-of-life. So people should be seen.”

If you have concerns about symptoms or risk factors for pancreatic cancer, talk with your provider.

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