July 25, 2019/Digestive

Pancreatic Cancer: It’s on the Rise, But There’s Reason to Be Hopeful

A healthy lifestyle may help with prevention

Illustration of the pancrease position in the human body

While many types of cancer have been steadily declining in recent years, cases of pancreatic cancer are on the rise. That’s a scary stat, because this is one cancer that is hard to catch in the early stage, when it’s most treatable.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

“Pancreatic cancer doesn’t have as many warning signs as other cancers,” says surgeon Robert Simon, MD. “It’s challenging to identify it early.”

While physicians and researchers don’t fully understand why there’s an uptick in pancreatic cancer rates, they have some theories involving the following factors:

  1. Rise in obesity: Obesity is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Since obesity is also on the rise, there may be a link.
  2. High sugar levels: Cancer cells thrive on sugar — which there’s plenty of in the modern diet. The pancreas helps control sugar levels in the body, so there may also be a link between our high-sugar diets and the increase in cancer.
  3. Rise in pancreas disease: Pancreatitis is another risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Between our pretty-darn-unhealthy diet and the massive amounts of alcohol we consume, the incidence of pancreatitis is also on the rise.

The good news is that some of these factors are in our control. Dr. Simon recommends that people:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid red meat and processed foods (including sugar).
  • Minimize alcohol consumption.

What are common signs of pancreatic cancer?

“Pancreatic cancer is so challenging because it doesn’t come with many warning signs,” Dr. Simon says. “By the time we diagnose it, the cancer is often advanced and hard to treat

Plus, he adds, there isn’t a good screening mechanisms to find it at an early stage. Other cancers like breast cancer and colon cancer are treatable in large part because there are screening tests like mammography and colonoscopy.

However, Dr. Simon says there are still things you can watch for:

  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of eyes.
  • Itching.
  • Grayish-white stools.
  • Dark urine.

Advertisement

If you have any of those signs, get to your doctor, who will run some tests. While the pancreas is in a difficult-to-access location, surgeons can often surgically remove the diseased parts of the pancreas (or the entire pancreas).

Advances in treating pancreatic cancer

“I’m optimistic,” Dr. Simon says. “So many people are now 5 or 10 years out of surgery and leading high-quality lives.”

And there are more reasons to be hopeful than there were a decade ago:

  • Chemotherapy regimens: Researchers are exploring new drugs or drug combinations to improve outcomes.
  • Surgical innovation: Doctors are using new technologies such as irreversible electroporation to treat patients. “This new technology requires surgery, but we put probes around the tumor and use an electrical pulse to poke holes in the tumor cells,” Dr. Simon explains.
  • Research: Researchers are studying tumor material removed during surgeries. They’re trying to identify if genetic factors or microscopic tumor markers may play a role in preventing or treating pancreatic cancer.

“I think there’s reason for hope and tons of success stories out there,” says Dr. Simon. “We just have to keep fighting.”

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person eating tiny amount of bland food, daydreaming about larger portion of better food, amidst silhouette of crowd eating
April 19, 2024/Mental Health
The Intersection of Obesity and Eating Disorders

Having overweight and disordered eating is a high-risk combination that often gets dismissed or overlooked

Doctor shaking hands with patient, with large heart and EKG line behind them
February 19, 2024/Heart Health
How Weight Affects Your Heart

Having underweight, having overweight and having obesity can be dangerous for your heart

Two bariatric surgery options: grastric bypass and gastric sleeve
February 14, 2024/Digestive
How To Know Which Type of Bariatric Surgery Is Right for You

Gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy are different procedures that offer similar benefits, including significant weight loss

Showing self injection of mounjaro into thigh.
October 24, 2023/Weight Loss
How Mounjaro Is Helping People With Obesity Lose Weight

This diabetes drug is quickly gaining attention for weight loss potential

Weight scale with arrow pointing to overweight is shown with sneakers and a water bottle in foreground.
September 10, 2023/Diet, Food & Fitness
Is It Healthy To Be ‘Fat and Fit’?

Having obesity brings long-term health risks no matter your fitness level

Person handing a pharmacist a prescription.
March 29, 2023/Weight Loss
Is Ozempic the Answer for Your Weight Loss?

This diabetes med can treat obesity, but it’s not for people who just want to drop a few pounds

Variety of weight loss drugs.
January 16, 2023/Weight Loss
The New Anti-Obesity Drugs: What You Should Know

You can lose 15% of your body weight, plus lower your heart disease and diabetes risks

Different people on beach with a variety of body shapes.
January 13, 2023/Wellness
What Does Your Body Shape Say About Your Health?

Any body shape can be a healthy one, but a thicker midsection can be a red flag

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad