November Recognized as Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month

Pancreatic cancer is one of the least talked about forms of cancer yet, it is one of deadliest. It is estimated that by the end of the year 2018 there will be 55,000 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States.

According to the American Association for Cancer Research the five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is 9 percent, the lowest of all major forms of cancer. This survival number represents people with all stages of disease and varies depending on the stage of disease. It is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and by 2020, it is expected to rise to number two.

In an effort to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, November has been recognized as Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. This month, we focus on education regarding signs and symptoms, treatments and most importantly prevention.

The pancreas is an organ within the lower part of the abdomen behind the stomach. It has two major functions. It produces substances to help aid in the digestion of our food and it produces hormones like insulin. Insulin controls how our body stores and uses glucose. Glucose is a form of sugar our body uses for energy.

Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to diagnose. This is because there are no specific, cost-effective screening tests that can easily and reliably find early-stage pancreatic cancer in people who have no symptoms. This means it is often not found until later stages when the cancer can no longer be removed with surgery and has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body.

Late stage pancreatic cancer can present with symptoms similar to those of other diseases. Someone with pancreatic cancer may present to his or her physician with a condition called jaundice. Jaundice is a yellow coloring of the skin or eyes. Along with jaundice, these persons may present with complaints of extreme itchiness of the skin. These symptoms often go hand in hand. Urine may become brown in color, or stools may become pale or grey in color. This is a sign of possible pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer can also cause abdominal pain or back pain, weight loss and poor appetite, or nausea and vomiting.

Having these symptoms does not mean you have pancreatic cancer. As mentioned, these symptoms can be caused by a number of other diseases. It is recommended that if you regularly develop one or more of these symptoms, please follow up with your primary care provider as soon as possible.

Once one has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he or she will meet with a cancer doctor, often one who has specialized in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, to discuss treatment options. Treatment options for pancreatic cancer include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

It is recognized worldwide that we are falling behind in our treatment of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Slight progress has been made in the five-year survival rate but compared to other forms of cancer little advancement has been made.

Currently, there is significant attention being paid to improve the outcomes of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. There are multiple studies in progress to improve pancreatic cancer care including several within the state of Pennsylvania. If you have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer talk to your cancer doctor to see if you are a candidate for one of these studies.

With all of the above information, we am sure you are questioning can pancreatic cancer be prevented? There is no sure way to prevent this cancer. There are certain risk factors that one cannot change. These include age, gender, race or family history.

As per the American Cancer Society there are certain lifestyle changes that one can do to help decrease your risk for developing pancreatic cancer. These lifestyle changes include:

  • Don’t Smoke. Choosing to not smoke is one of the most important avoidable risk factors for pancreatic cancer. Quitting helps lower your risk. If you are interested in quitting smoking please speak with your health care provider. Penn Highlands Healthcare offers smoking cessation classes. To find out more regarding these classes please call 814-375-3575 or 814-375-3770.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Getting to and maintaining a healthy weight may help lower your risk. Physical activity and a healthy diet have not presented clear effects on pancreatic cancer however these can help you to maintain a healthy weight. If you have questions regarding diet or exercise please discuss these with your primary care physician.
  • Limit alcohol use. The link between heavy alcohol use and pancreatic cancer is unclear, however, heavy alcohol use is known to contribute to chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Both of these conditions have shown to increase the risk for pancreatic cancer. Please contact your primary care provider if you have questions concerns regarding your consumption of alcohol.
  • Limit exposure to certain workplace chemicals. Avoiding workplace exposure to certain chemicals may reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer. If you have questions regarding chemicals in your workplace contact your employer.

Great strides have been made in the last decade for the detection and treatment of many forms of cancer. We are hopeful that in the near future pancreatic cancer will also be one of these cancers. Until then, we encourage all to follow up with their primary care providers as scheduled and follow the recommendations of the American Cancer Society regarding living a healthy lifestyle.

Please visit the American Cancer Society website at for additional information regarding pancreatic cancer or other forms of cancer. If you or a family member have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer please visit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network website at for helpful information regarding resources and support for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.