High profile sufferers place spotlight on pancreatic cancer

(l-r) U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. (Trebek photo by Anders Krusberg)

Recent high-profile individuals with pancreatic cancer have put the disease in the forefront of people’s minds. Both Congressman John Lewis and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek have recently revealed their fight with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cancer cells form and grow within the pancreas. These tumors are hard to diagnose early, since pancreatic cancer signs and symptoms aren’t obvious. Because of this, the majority of these cancers are diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage, when treatment options are limited.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “pancreatic cancer is the fifth leading cause of death from cancer and the 11th most common cancer in the United States.” However, the CDC also reports that “the five-year survival rate” from pancreatic cancer has slightly improved in recent years. Among Whites, the five-year survival rate is at 5.4% and among Blacks, the five-year survival rate is at 4.3%, according to the CDC.

Nearly, but not all, “patients with the disease die of it, and most die within one year of diagnosis,” the CDC states. The National Institute of Health reports that “no patient has survived longer than 10 years and the longest overall survival is 8.6 years.”

The pancreas is an oblong organ located behind the lower part of the stomach, between the stomach and the spine. It produces juices that aid in digestion and makes insulin and other hormones that help the body absorb sugar and control blood sugar.

The pancreas mainly contains two kinds of cells:  exocrine cells, which make and release enzymes that aid in food digestion and endocrine cells, which produce and release important hormones directly into the bloodstream.

The majority of pancreatic cancers start in the exocrine cells that line the ducts of the pancreas. These are called pancreatic adenocarcinomas.

Anything that increases your chance of developing pancreatic cancer is a risk factor. Some risk factors can be changed, while others cannot.

People who smoke are about twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer.  Also, being very overweight (having an elevated body mass index, or BMI) increases your chance of developing pancreatic cancer by 20%.

Other pancreatic cancer risk factors can’t be changed, including:

  • Age: The risk of pancreatic cancer increases sharply after 55 years old.
  • Race: African Americans are more likely to have pancreatic cancer than other ethnic groups.
  • Family history: Hereditary genetic changes may account for about 10% of pancreatic cancers. Examples of genetic syndromes that can cause exocrine pancreatic cancer include: Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome caused by mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, Lynch syndrome (usually defects in MLH1 or MSH 2 genes), and hereditary pancreatitis due to mutations in PRSSI gene.
  • Diabetes: People with long-standing history of type 2 diabetes have an increased likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas is linked with increased pancreatic cancer risk, especially in smokers.

Not everyone with the above risk factors gets pancreatic cancer. However, if you have risk factors, you should discuss them with your doctor.

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