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.

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“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

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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.

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.”

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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.”

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