There's an old saying: "What we don't know can't hurt us." But as anyone who has lost someone to cancer can tell you, this is sometimes the furthest from the truth. Sometimes, it's the not knowing that does hurt us most. It's definitely true with cancer of the pancreas, since many of us don't even know what a pancreas is or what it does until it's not working correctly. So, with some information we pulled from the Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Network, we'll fill you in...
The pancreas is a gland, about six inches long, located in the abdomen. It's surrounded by the stomach, small intestine, liver, spleen and gallbladder. The pancreas has two main functions, the exocrine and endocrine functions. Exocrine cells produce enzymes that help with digestion, and the endocrine function involves production of hormones that regulate blood sugar levels.
Cancer of the pancreas is sometimes called a "silent" disease because symptoms are not usually present in early stages. Many patients have advanced disease by the time it becomes noticeable to the patient and their physicians. Individuals may experience different symptoms depending on the location, type and stage of the tumor. Some symptoms that commonly lead to diagnosis include: jaundice, abdominal and/or back pain, unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite. Symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, digestive difficulties and depression may occur at any time.
95% of pancreatic cancers are classified as exocrine tumors because they begin in the exocrine cells. More info on those kinds of tumors is available here. Endocrine tumors may be benign or malignant and tend to be slower growing than exocrine tumors. Less than 5% of all pancreatic tumors are endocrine tumors, affecting the hormone function of the pancreas, but 90% of those tumors are malignant, or cancerous. More info on these kinds of tumors is available here.
Smoking - Smoking is a significant risk factor and is the cause of about 25% of all pancreatic cancer cases. People who smoke cigarettes are 2 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than people who do not smoke.
Family History - If a person’s mother, father, sibling, or child had pancreatic cancer, then that person’s risk for developing the disease increases by 2-3 times. The risk increases if a greater number of family members are affected. Also, the risk of pancreatic cancer increases if there is a history of familial breast or colon cancer, familial melanoma, or hereditary pancreatitis. Approximately 10% of pancreatic cancer cases are related to a family history of the disease. Individuals who smoke and have a family history of pancreatic cancer are at risk of developing pancreatic cancer up to 10 years earlier than their previously diagnosed family member(s).
Race - African-Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to individuals of Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian descent. There is also a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer among Ashkenazi Jews, possibly due to a mutation involving the breast cancer (BRCA2) gene that is found in about 1% of individuals of this background.
Gender - Slightly more men are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than women. This may be linked to higher smoking rates in men. With increasing smoking rates in women, the incidence of pancreatic cancer in women may soon equal that in men.
Diabetes - Pancreatic cancer is 2 times more likely to occur in people who have diabetes than in people who do not have diabetes. In pancreatic cancer patients who have had diabetes for less than five years, it is unclear if the diabetes contributed to the cancer or if the precancerous cells caused the diabetes.
Obesity - For people who are considered clinically obese, there may be a significantly increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In those who are overweight, the risk may decrease with increased physical activity. Closely associated with obesity, a diet lacking fruits and vegetables, or higher in carbs, processed meats and animal fats is also considered a risk factor, as is a sedentary lifestyle. Interestingly, obese patients who have an active lifestyle have a lower risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Know the risks, the symptoms, and what you can do to help prevent this disease, and as always - if you or a loved one are a cancer patient in Northwest Arkansas and need support, don't hesitate to contact us.