Pancreatic cancer is one of several types of cancer that has been linked to the genes primarily associated—and named for—breast cancer. As with breast cancer, however, genetic susceptibility is only a small part of the picture. Because the pancreas is where insulin is produced, pancreatic cancer is associated with diabetes, and diabetic people are more likely to develop cancer, as are people with other diseases of the pancreas. That means obesity and other risk factors for diabetes are also risk factors for pancreatic cancer.
It is also one of the cancers to which smokers are particularly vulnerable, and the vulnerability lasts a long time, taking years or even decades after quitting to return to non-smoker risk levels. Cutting back on red meat is suggested for cutting risk, but the evidence for a connection is unclear.
As with many forms of cancer, pancreatic cancer ordinarily has no obvious symptoms in the early stages. However, pancreatic cancer can lead to the appearance of jaundice. Other symptoms include poor appetite and weight loss, odd stools, or pain in the upper abdomen, though these are not as specific. Moreover, while diabetes is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer, it can also be caused by it. That means the sudden onset of type 2 diabetes can be an indication that pancreatic cancer screening is in order, particularly in patients with no real risk factors for diabetes, those with a family history of pancreatic or breast cancer, or African-American patients.
Even with an early diagnosis, however, pancreatic cancer has a relatively low survival rate, around one in three, largely because it is such an aggressive form off cancer. Recently this month, researchers found that a gene called TRIM29, which is involved in a substantial majority of cases of pancreatic cancer, affects the way tumor cells grow. The pancreatic cancer variant of the gene also alters the structure of the tumor cells in such a way that they have an easier time moving around and spreading through the organs of the body.
Because it is so deadly even in the early stages, prevention is more important that screening for pancreatic cancer. The means quitting smoking, exercise, and a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables.