By Renjitha Ignatius, MD, Florida Cancer Specialists
While significant advances have been made in treating many types of cancer, pancreatic cancer remains extremely challenging. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7 percent of all cancer deaths. Due to various factors, it is difficult to detect the disease at an early stage, when it is more treatable; therefore, the average five-year survival rate for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined is only around 9 percent.
Reduce Your Risk Factors
Certain risk factors for pancreatic cancer can be changed by making lifestyle choices that reduce the chances of getting the disease. Among these risk factors are tobacco use, obesity and heavy alcohol use.
For example, 25 percent of pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by cigarette smoking; however, the risk of pancreatic cancer begins to drop as soon as a person stops smoking. Likewise, being very overweight increases the chances of developing pancreatic cancer, as does chronic pancreatitis, which is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis often results from heavy alcohol use and/or smoking.
Know Your Family History
Pancreatic cancer does seem to run in some families due to inherited gene changes (mutations) that can be passed from a parent to children. It is estimated that these gene changes may cause up to 10 percent of pancreatic cancers. According to ACS, some examples of genetic syndromes that can cause pancreatic cancer include:
Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, caused by mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
Hereditary breast cancer, caused by mutations in the PALB2 gene.
Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, caused by mutations in the p16/CDKN2A gene and associated with skin and eye melanomas.
Familial pancreatitis, usually caused by mutations in the PRSS1 gene.
Lynch syndrome, also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), most often caused by a defect in the MLH1 or MSH2 genes.
Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, caused by defects in the STK11 gene. This syndrome is also linked with polyps in the digestive tract and several other cancers.
Signs and Symptoms
There aren’t any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. Also, signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, when present, may mimic symptoms of many other illnesses.
Examples are: Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), light-colored stools, dark urine, pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back, weight loss for no known reason, loss of appetite and feeling very tired.
Research Brings Hope for New Treatments
There are a range of current treatment options for pancreatic cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, chemoradiation therapy and targeted therapy, and recent research has provided a better understanding of the molecular changes that can lead to the development of pancreatic cancer, and that knowledge is resulting in better and more directed therapies.
Clearly, the future of treatment for pancreatic cancer lies in the development of novel agents to replace or enhance current chemotherapy regimens. Because of the rapidly progressing research, we oncologists are hopeful for the future of our patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancers.