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Pancreatic Cancer Facts

After 22 years as an RN, I now write about medical issues and new medical advances. Diet, exercise, treatment, and lifestyle are important.


Heartbreak of Pancreatic Cancer

I recently attended a funeral for a 32 year old man that died of pancreatic cancer. This horrid disease is most often diagnosed when a patient is already in stage 4, which is the worse stage. This is due to the lack of symptoms.

His girlfriend, mother and 50 other family members attended his funeral, and I could not help but think after all the advances in medicine this is an area where advances are clearly absent. Certainly, 32 years old is too young to die.

November is pancreatic cancer month and their ribbon is purple. Each group of five people held a small purple ribbon at the funeral.

Typical Prognosis of Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen, which controls blood sugar and secretes enzymes that aid in the digestion of food. Most of the people diagnosed with this disease do not survive, even when it is diagnosed earlier.

It is an aggressive cancer that quickly spreads to the liver and other areas of the body. Symptoms do not typically appear until the cancer has already advanced, so only four percent of patients live beyond five years.

Why There Are No Earlier Warning Signs

The pancreas is only four to six inches long and shaped somewhat like a tadpole. The tail end of the pancreas produces insulin, but tumors are rare in that area. The larger end (or head) of the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes, and exocrine tumors in that area are more common but still difficult to detect.

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer - Mayo Clinic

Possible Signs of Cancer

There are some possible signs of cancer and it is good to be aware of these symptoms as they may save your life.

These are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

  • Diabetes with a sudden onset – endocrine tumors are rare but would cause this effect
  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss, sometimes due to the inability to digest fatty foods
  • Skin or white of the eye turning yellow – caused when the cancer has blocked the bile duct in the head of the pancreas
  • Smelly, pale, floating stools – due to the loss of digestive enzymes, so the body is unable to digest fatty foods
  • Dark, tarry stools – caused by upper intestine bleeding
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Skin of the palms and sole of the feet become itchy, which is due to bilirubin from the liver
  • Loss of appetite approximately six to eight months before typical diagnosis
  • A change in taste – some people suddenly lose their taste for coffee or alcohol
  • Abdominal pain – described as a gnawing pain, not a sharp cramp or ache, and it radiates toward the back, plus it goes away when leaning forward
  • Enlarged gall bladder – the blockage in the bile duct may cause an enlargement in the gallbladder

Famous People Who Died of Pancreatic Cancer

Most of us are aware that Steve Jobs of Apple Computers recently passed away from this disease. No amount of money can cure this disease.

Of course, we remember Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, Luciano Pavarotti, Donna Reed, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice also had a cancerous tumor removed early and appears to be in remission.

Each year there are approximately 45,220 new cases diagnosed, and 38,460 deaths according to the National Cancer Society.

Michael Landon - Died Too Young

Michael Landon - Died Too Young

Obtaining an Early Diagnosis

If you have any symptoms, document them, and see a physician. The doctor will probably schedule some specific tests, such as an ultrasound or CAT scan, which can diagnose this disease. A biopsy may follow an abnormal result to further diagnose cancer.

In addition, there is a new blood test (CA 19-9), which is a biomarker for this cancer, however, it often takes too much time for the CA 19-9 to reach a detectable level to diagnose the disease during the early stages. Ruth Bador Ginsburg got a CAT scan early and had surgery, so she was one of the lucky ones.

What Causes Cancer?

Cells of the pancreas develop mutations in their DNA, which cause the unhealthy cells to rapidly grow. They also live longer than the normal healthy cells. Some of these can be changed if you so choose.

The risk factors for this disease include:

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  • Being African American
  • Obesity
  • Pancreatitis (chronic inflammation)
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of genetic markers, like BRCA2 gene mutation and FAMMM
  • Personal family history of this disease
  • Smoking
Pancreas Function

Pancreas Function

Procedures and Complications

Sometimes the doctor will place a stent in the bile duct to keep it open, and there are times a surgery will be necessary to create a new way for the bile to flow from the liver to the intestines.

Pain can also be problem if a tumor presses on abdominal nerves, in which case radiation therapy may be used in addition to pain medication.

A bowel obstruction is another possible complication that may require a stent or even surgery. Vomiting and nausea may cause further weight loss.

Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

Any treatment will depend on the location and the stage of the cancer. Age, overall health and personal preference will all impact the treatment. The main goal is to eliminate the cancer, but if that is not possible, trying to stop the spread of the disease is the next goal.

Surgical options are infrequent since most patients are diagnosed too late. However, when the cancerous tumor is located on the head of the pancreas there is a surgical procedure used, which is called the Whipple procedure.

It is a difficult surgery, and the recovery takes several weeks. Surgery is sometimes performed on other areas of the pancreas as well, but it is important to have a well-experienced surgeon for these surgeries on the pancreas.

Radiation may be used prior to surgery or following surgery. Chemotherapy is also a common treatment and may be used in conjunction with radiation.

Pancreatic Cancer Overview

Homeopathic and Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments are often used as a supplement to traditional therapy. Some of these therapies include acupuncture, herbal medicine, folk medicine, particular diets, faith healing, chiropractor, naturopathy, massage and music therapy.

New Clinical Studies

Scientists have learned more about the DNA causing the pancreatic cancer when there is no family history. Surprisingly, in these cases the cancer cells initially grow slowly over a three year period. Researches are working to develop tests to detect these cells.

The bulk of the research is focused on new combinations of chemotherapy. Since scientists have learned that pancreatic cancer cells are different from normal cells, they are developing new drugs that specifically target these cancer cells.

Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate

The American Cancer Society ranks all four stages of pancreatic cancer with the five year survival rate at 9 percent and a five year rate of only four percent. Patients with smaller tumors when diagnosed have a better prognosis.

As this is such a difficult disease, much of the treatment is focused on pain relief. The patient and their family need a great deal of emotional support as well until science develops an effective cure.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on March 05, 2020:

Hi Takako,

I hope your fathe may be able to fight this horrible disease and live for some more years. No matter what age our parents are we don't want them to suffer or die in a painful way. Thank you so much for your comments.

Takako Komori from Yokohama, Japan on March 04, 2020:

My father, aged 85 was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had been diabetic and had high sugar level for some time, but he never received treatment for it. I`m not sure what stage he`s at, but he had no unusual symptoms until December 2019.

As you point out, prognosis for pancretic cancer is not very good. A colleague of my father had pancreatic cancer years ago and he entered a hospice but he passed away in just six months. For my father, the doctor says that if the cancer is left untreated, he may only live around a year or so. Right now, they`re running several tests on him to determine whether or not surgery is possible, although he has lost weight and is quite weak. If surgery is not possible, they may opt for chemotherapy.

Thank you for the information, it was helpful to know the facts!

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on August 22, 2013:

CraftyCore, I have seen people suffer from these disease without a family hx. and no hx. of alcoholism either. It is an awful disease and I am so sorry to hear your grandfather is suffering so much. I appreciate you sharing your experience.

CraftytotheCore on August 22, 2013:

My grandfather is dying from pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed two years ago when he turned as yellow as sunshine. His leg hurt. He was admitted to the hospital and they detected the cancer. They put a stent in. He felt better soon afterward. I got sick for a while and he was able to help us out a lot. Just within the past three weeks he took a turn for the worst. Hospice is now involved. He is in a lot of pain but they are keeping him on pain medication and will ultimately put him on morphene. It makes me sad to know that this strong man who was able to help us through my illnesses when we needed him most has lost 50 pounds and is suffering so much. It's a nasty disease. There was no family history. He was always thin. He doesn't fit the profile of someone at risk. It's interesting that researchers are now looking into DNA when there is no family history.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 20, 2013:

Peggy, I wish they had cures for all cancers also. The only one that they can almost always cure is prostate cancer because it is much slower to develop than most cancers. Thanks for your commetns.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 20, 2013:

Vellur, I agree that it is sad that there is not cure for this awful disease. I appreciate you comment.s

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 19, 2013:

Very good article Pamela. Hopefully in the future they will continue to seek out effective therapies to battle not only this type of cancer, but all of them. It is an ugly disease.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on July 19, 2013:

A great hub, informative and useful. Pancreatic cancer is a terrible thing to undergo and it is so sad that there is no cure for this disease. Thank you for sharing this hub. Great write and voted up.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 18, 2013:

Nell Rose, I really wanted people to know there are a few early symptoms that seem to be easily ignored. Thanks for your comments.

Nell Rose from England on July 17, 2013:

Hi Pamela, such a horrible disease and something we don't tend to think about a lot, I never knew about the symptoms before, so this is really detailed and will help anybody who needs to know, nell

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 13, 2013:

Vicki, That is amaaing and I am so surpirsed she did not lose weight as I though that was one of the major signs. I hope the experimental drug is the cute. Thanks for letting me know all the details.

Vickiw on July 13, 2013:

Pamela, the extraordinary thing is that at no time has she lost weight, in fact she has always looked normal to the point it is hard to believe how ill she is. Her husband has documented all of her treatment, and been with her as she suffers through this awful journey. The last treatment was the worst. It is experimental, and only used on stage 4 I believe. Now she is back, socialising with friends, fund raising, and enjoying life to all intents and purposes. It is amazing.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 13, 2013:

Vicky, I am so happy to hear of someone who is still alive 5 years out from their diagnosis. I did not get inot specific chemo for this article, so I will have to read about TACE. I agree about the research. Thank you for sharing your experience and your other comments.

Vickiw on July 12, 2013:

Hi Pamela, I have a dear friend who has just survived her 5th year after being diagnosed. She has had very aggressive treatment, and I don't know how she has managed to keep going. The last treatment she had was something called TACE I think. It took her a long time to come back from that. Her most recent assessment shows that the tumour has not grown at all. We all hope and pray that her ordeal will be over soon, and that she will recover.

Your Hub is sobering, to think of all the amazing people who have been cut down in the prime of their lives. So much more research is needed. Thank you for spotlighting this dreadful disease.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 12, 2013:

Linda, I alwaays loved Michael Landon also. It seems no one lasts long once they get this diagnosis. I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 12, 2013:

RTalloni, There are several universities and hospitals performing research at this time,- and I really don't know which one is the best. I guess when one actually makes a big breakthrough we will have that answer. I would love to see a cure and also a way to diagnose the disease earlier. Thank you for your comments.

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on July 12, 2013:

The first time I ever heard of Pancreatic Cancer was when Michael Landon (I continue to adore him) was stricken. It's a horrible cancer. Well, all cancers are horrible. My cousin was diagnosed at age 40 and died within 6 months. She took good care of herself with a healthy lifestyle and she still couldn't beat the beast. It's very sad about your 32 yr old friend. I agree, much too young.

RTalloni on July 12, 2013:

Highlighting the issues surrounding such diseases is important. Thank you for sharing information and encouraging the research. Have you inquired into where the best research on pancreatic cancer is being performed?

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 11, 2013:

midget, I agree with you as they are all horrible. I am sorry to hear about your granddad. Thank you for your comments.

Martie, It is such a difficult way to die. The problem so often is they go undiagnosed, then nothing can be done. I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 11, 2013:

midget, I agree with you as they are all horrible. I am sorry to hear about your granddad. Thank you for your comments.

Martie, It is such a difficult way to die. The problem so often is they go undiagnosed, then nothing can be done. I appreciate your comments.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on July 11, 2013:

A close friend of mine had died from Pancreatic cancer. It was hard to see him losing weight and fighting pain. Not knowing for almost a year what was wrong - then knowing far too late - was indeed his lot. Thanks for this most interesting info, Pam :)

Michelle Liew from Singapore on July 11, 2013:

Any form of cancer is a disease that should never ever be. Thanks for sharing, Pamela, these fascinating facts. My grand dad passed away from it too.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 10, 2013:

ebooks, It is an awful disease as you know only to well. I sure hope they come up with a cure and they really need a test to detect the disease earlier. Thanks for your comments.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on July 10, 2013:

Thanks for posting this. I've had relatives that have died from this cancer and it is awful. It's too bad that there is no cure yet. Hopefully one day... Voted up.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 09, 2013:

Karen, I wish they would find a cure also and so many people die of all types of cancers. Thank you for your comments.

Karen Hellier from Georgia on July 08, 2013:

So sorry that you lost someone to this disease. Cancer is such a thief. It robs its victims of so much. I wish they would find a cure for cancer in my lifetime, but it looks doubtful.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

Rose, I agree that is is a very unforgiving disease, and I wpould like everyone to know the initiatial symptoms as it is so often diagnosed too latel I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

Sue, This is one of the worst and I hope your are right. Thank you for your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

drbj. , I truly hopeyou are right. That is why I write these types of articles. Thanks so much for your comments.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on July 08, 2013:

Hi Pamela, this is a very unforgiving disease, I've recently attended a lecture about how we can better manage this terrible condition. You've done an excellent job spreading awareness.

My best to you.

Susan Bailey from South Yorkshire, UK on July 08, 2013:

Any cancer is horrible but this is one of the worst. Thanks for publishing this hub it may make people aware of the symptoms and prompt them to seek early diagnosis. Voted up and useful

drbj and sherry from south Florida on July 08, 2013:

This is a very thorough treatment of the subject of pancreatic cancer, Pamela. Your list of possible signs and symptoms of this insidious disease may well help some reader to prolong his or her life.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

bac2basics, I am sorry to hear you lost a friend this way. I doubt the storke was linked to the cancer, but I am not a doctor, so I don't know that for sure. I think your views on what to do if they are faced with a disease like this are quite common. I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

Javkir, I loved Patrick and Michael also and hated they died with this horrible disease. Some people have survived, so I wonder about natural rememdies also. Even scientists have found the benefits of many homeopathic remedies. Thanks so much for your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

Tom, You are right, it is the silent killer. Thanks for your comments.

Anne from United Kingdom on July 08, 2013:

Hi Pamela I lost a very dear friend to this horrible cancer in January this year, on her birthday. As you say, by the time it was diagnosed it had advanced so much that she wasn´t even offered treatment. She also suffered a stroke just after the cancer was discovered but I don´t know if this was linked to the cancer or not. Despite how ill she was she married her best friend whilst in hospice, hung on for Christmas at home and then made it to her birthday, she set herself all these goals and hung on until she reached them. knowing what I do about this cancer and also lung cancer, should I ever get either I would opt out of having treatment. hard as this hub was to read at least you were very honest in how you described it and how usually lethal it is. I don´t see the point in people going through the regimes of Chemotherapy and the rest in mostly un- curable cancers.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on July 08, 2013:

It is a horrible cancer. You have shown here being rich or famous doesn't save you from it. ( I loved Patrick and Michael so much!) I often wonder when I hear of someone famous dying like this why they didn't have better health care but cancer is one sneaky killer yet I still wonder how many try a natural cure. I have been so blessed using natural remedies for my health I think I would try natural before anything else.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on July 08, 2013:

Hi Pamela great well written and informative article about this type of cancer, it is a silent killer . Thanks for sharing all this useful information !

Vote up and more !!! Sharing !

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

Alicia, I am glad you feel that way as that was my purpose. It is possible that a person could notice some of the signs and get diagnosed ealier. Thank you for your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

DDE, I'm glad this hub was informative to you as it is good to know the symptoms also. Thanks so much for your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

Ruby, The fact that no amount of money and best medical care couldn't cure Steve Jobs really tells you that this is a horrible disease. I thought maybe many people did not know much about this disease. I appreciate your comments.

Pamela Oglesby (author) from Sunny Florida on July 08, 2013:

Billy, You are fortunate to have good health and viewing it as a blessing. This is an ugly disease for sure. Thanks for your comments.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on July 08, 2013:

You said it so right dearest Mary,

So much heartbreak here with such cancer, as it seems, at least in the cases I have known, to be found too late and then they are gone, just that quick. The Mayor of our little town came knocking on our door one weekend with his two very young grandsons, and he look as though he was in the best of health, asd he is was a young man, you know, in his 50s or so. Then the very next week, we received a message from our church to pray for the Town's mayor as he has pancreatic cancer. Then it seems it was like the very next week he died! Maybe he knew of it before anyone else, and had it for a long time, but he looked great just two weeks earlier! So devasting.

Thanks for this insightful hub here.

Voted up +++ and sharing

(will return to share, buttons not appearing at the moment)

God bless, Faith Reaper

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 08, 2013:

This is a very useful and important hub, Pamela. Pancreatic cancer is a horrible disease. Your article will help people identify the warning signs and deal with the problem.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on July 08, 2013:

A well researched hub on Pancreatic Cancer I have always wanted to know about the symptoms and finally read your hub. Voted up, Informative, useful, and interesting facts.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 08, 2013:

I found this to be very informative. Pancreatic cancer is the most dreaded type of cancer due to the low survival rate. What a shame, Michael Landon, he was a great actor. When i was reading this i thought about Steve Jobs, no amount of money will save you, you know everything was done for him. Great hub Pam. I am glad you keep up with medical trends and write about them.....

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 08, 2013:

It is just an ugly disease, Pamela. Good job of exposing it and giving valuable information. I have been so blessed with good health.....I feel like every day that I am breathing is a bonus at this point. :)

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