Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is a small but essential organ that sits near the center of the mid-abdomen close to the stomach and gall bladder.  It plays two major roles in the body: 1) it breaks down the food we eat, in concert with stomach and gall bladder, into vital energy and building blocks for the body and 2) it is also the place where insulin is made and is defective in people with Type I diabetes.

Cancer occurs when a cell develops an error in its DNA, causing it to become aggressive and grow out of proportion to normal cells.  Pancreatic cancer most often affects the special cells that help the breakdown of food.  There are rarer cases of cancer of the cells that make insulin.

In comparison to other cancers, pancreatic cancer is not as common.  There will be about 43,000 cases in the United States this year, compared to nearly 200,000 cases of breast or prostate cancer each.  The problem with pancreatic cancer is that it is often diagnosed after the cancer has reached a stage where it is too late.    Only 10-35% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will be alive five years later.

Pancreatic cancer can grow without signs of the cancer in the body for months to years.  The most common symptom is pain in the upper left side of the abdomen, weight loss and yellowing of the eyes or skin (called jaundice).

Only 10-35% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will be alive five years later.

The main risk factors for pancreatic cancer are smoking (any amount), inactivity, obesity, and a high-fat, calorie-dense diet.  There is debate whether diabetes itself is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer.  Heavy alcohol intake, which can lead to repeated bouts of pancreas inflammation and pain, is also a risk factor.  There is a familial link to pancreatic cancer as well.

Protect yourself by stopping smoking (or never starting), exercising regularly and adopting a low fat diet today.  If you have a family member who developed pancreatic cancer, tell your doctor and ask about next steps for screening.

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