Pancreatic Cancer: Let’s Talk Survivorship, Risk Factors, and Support

November 18, 2021
An elderly woman wearing a white blouse and a sun hat smiles in front of a bright pink wall

Stock photo posed by model. Photo by Juno Jo on Unsplash.

Initially, in the first few months after Cynthia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she didn’t seek chemotherapy treatment. She did not want to go through what her aunt had gone through while fighting breast cancer. “It wasn't until after she died that I discovered how long her battle had been," Cynthia shares. "She fought that monster for almost 20 years! I never knew the story behind her fight.”

By talking with her relatives, Cynthia learned how her aunt was “a warrior in the fight against cancer.” Her aunt’s persistence inspired her. “It was after this that I decided I wanted to fight,” Cynthia continues. “So, in November 2019, I began the search for the best cancer treatment that my insurance would cover. Now I've been on the right track for 9 months. I'm still fighting!”

It may be hard to feel hopeful when you have cancer. But maintaining hope can give you energy to keep going even when you are feeling down. In recognition of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, we share key things to know about the disease, including resources and support to help you navigate a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

 

Signs & Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is a gland deep in the abdomen that aids in food digestion and assists in maintaining blood sugar levels. Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don’t appear until it is advanced. As a result, it is seldom caught early. For this reason, it is sometimes called a silent disease.

As pancreatic cancer develops, the following symptoms may appear:

  • Blood clots – Blood clots may form in the veins or fatty tissue under the skin. They can travel to the lungs and cause breathing problems.
  • Diabetes – Pancreatic cancer can interfere with blood sugar levels.
  • Digestive abnormalities – Stools might be pale, bulky, greasy, and float in the toilet. Other problems may include nausea, vomiting, and pain that gets worse after eating.
  • Jaundice – A yellow color in the eyes and skin is called jaundice caused by a build-up of a substance (bilirubin) that is made in the liver. At least half of all people with pancreatic cancer have jaundice.
  • Pain – Pain in the abdomen or in the middle of the back is a common sign of advanced pancreatic cancer.
  • Swollen gallbladder – During an exam, your doctor may find that the gallbladder is enlarged.
  • Weight loss – Weight loss is a very common symptom.

Pancreatic cancer represents 3.2% of all new cancer cases in the United States.

― National Cancer Institute

If symptoms are noticed, a doctor may perform one or more of the following procedures:

  • Physical exam – A doctor examines the skin and eyes for signs of jaundice and feels the abdomen, looking for abnormalities near the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder.
  • Lab test – Samples of blood, urine, and stool are checked for bilirubin and other substances. High bilirubin levels may suggest a blockage that could be caused by cancer or another condition.
  • CT scan – An x-ray machine takes detailed pictures of the pancreas and surrounding organs and blood vessels.
  • Ultrasound – Sound waves and a computer are used to create a picture of the pancreas and surrounding organs.
  • ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) – An endoscope is passed through the mouth and stomach into the small intestine. A tube injects a dye through the endoscope into the bile and pancreatic ducts. The dye shows up on x-rays and can reveal blockages, which may be caused by tumors.
  • PTC (percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography) – A dye injected into the liver and x-rays is used to highlight blockages caused by tumors.
  • Biopsy – A pathologist looks at a sample of tissue from the pancreas under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

 

Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare compared to other cancers. Research is improving our understanding of the causes of pancreatic cancer. Known risk factors for the disease include:

  • Age/gender – Most people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are 55 or older. It is more common in men than women.
  • Being overweight – Overweight people are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis – Long-term swelling of the pancreas is linked with a slightly higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver – People who have cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) may have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Diabetes – Pancreatic cancer is more common among people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes can also be a symptom of pancreatic cancer.
  • Family history – Pancreatic cancer can run in families.
  • Stomach issues – Having too much stomach acid or bacteria (H. pylori) in the stomach may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Tobacco products – Smoking accounts for nearly 30% of pancreatic cancer cases. People who use smokeless (spit or chew) tobacco are also more likely to get pancreatic cancer.
  • Work exposure to chemicals – Exposure at work to certain pesticides, dyes, and chemicals may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer. 

Resources & Support

If you are living with pancreatic cancer or are a caregiver to someone with pancreatic cancer, these resources can help ease the burden of your journey:

You can also join CSC’s free digital support community for people impacted by cancer, MyLifeLine.org. Members have access to a variety of discussion boards where they can share their ideas and experiences. Members can also create a private support website to keep their friends and family updated about their cancer journey. In addition, they can organize help for things like meals and rides to medical appointments. 

“Do things to stay as positive as possible and don't let yourself get run down. Sleep when you are tired. Don't fight it. Your body knows you need a lot of rest.”

― Cynthia, pancreatic cancer survivor

Be sure to check our blog section often as we share more news, stories, and inspiration to help support people impacted by cancer.