Cancer of the pancreas is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in the United States, and has one of the lowest survival rates of any form of cancer. The five-year survival rate is only six percent. The lethality of this form of cancer is primarily due to the speed with which it spreads and the difficulty of detecting it when it is at an earlier stage and responds better to treatment. As with all forms of cancer, early treatment is more successful than later treatment, but in pancreatic cancer the window is so short, and early detection so difficult, that early treatment is not often possible.
Part of the reason for this is that there are often no symptoms in the early stages. Even when symptoms do appear, they are so vague and general—upper abdominal pain, poor appetite and weight loss, jaundice—that symptoms alone do not clearly point to, let aline definitely indicate, pancreatic cancer. There are some signs to look for, however. The sudden onset of diabetes may be the result of pancreatic cancer. Someone who goes from liking coffee or wine to being disgusted by them should be checked as well. Another sign is stool that is pale and greasy, the result of undigested fat; this indicator is often ignored or deemed too embarrassing to address.
Even without any signs, people may benefit from screenings if they have risk factors for the disease. Diabetes and other disease of the pancreas may be cause or symptom, or at least related in some way. Pancreatic cancer tends to recur, so someone who has recovered should be vigilant. There’s a genetic component as well, so family members of people who have had pancreatic cancer—or, since some of the same mutations are involved, breast cancer—are at risk. Smokers are nearly twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as non-smokers. Another avoidable risk is a diet high in red meat, especially processed meats, and low in fruits and vegetables.
The good news is that new diagnostic techniques may make pancreatic cancer screening easier and more effective. In addition to potentially expensive and time-consuming CT scans, a blood testing protocol is being investigated that scientists say could find signs of developing pancreatic cancer. The investigation indicates that certain patterns in genetic material may be the disease’s signature.