While it is not the most common type of cancer, pancreatic cancer is still ranked ninth and tenth in cancer diagnoses for women and men in the U.S., respectively. Estimates suggest that over 57,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020, averaging out to about 158 people per day.
Survival rates can play an important role in determining how to approach cancer and develop treatment plans that allow for maximum effectiveness. Learn more about pancreatic cancer and its survival rate below.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer affects any of the cells that make up the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that sits in the abdomen, just behind the lower area of the stomach. It produces digestive enzymes that help with the breakdown of foods, particularly fats, and it plays an integral role in controlling blood sugar levels by producing and secreting the hormones glucagon and insulin.
The pancreas can succumb to several types of growths, some of which may be noncancerous, meaning that they do not grow or spread. Cancerous tumors in the pancreas usually affect the exocrine cells. In fact, about 93 percent of pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors. The exocrine cells make up most of the pancreas and are involved in the production and secretion of digestive enzymes. The most common exocrine tumor is known as a pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which affects the cells lining the ducts within the pancreas.
Only about 7 percent of pancreatic cancers affect the organ’s endocrine cells. Endocrine (or neuroendocrine) cells are involved with the production of insulin and glucagon. An endocrine tumor generally grows slower than an exocrine tumor.
There is not exactly a straightforward answer to the question “What is the one cause of pancreatic cancer?” Pancreatic cancer is caused primarily by mutations in the DNA, some of which are hereditary and others that develop from exposure to certain environmental factors.
Understanding Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rates
Survival rates for any type of cancer usually depend on when you receive treatment, which itself depends on how soon you get a diagnosis. The problem with this disease is that it usually does not present any noticeable symptoms in the beginning stages of pancreatic cancer, meaning that it is often only diagnosed once the tumor has grown larger or spread beyond the pancreas.
Most doctors consider five-year relative survival rates for any type of cancer. A relative survival rate compares your diagnosis with people who have the same exact type and stage of pancreatic cancer in the population. A five-year relative survival rate describes the likelihood of surviving at least five years after your diagnosis relative to other cancer patients with the same type and stage of pancreatic cancer.
Current pancreatic cancer survival rate data comes from the American Cancer Society, which uses information from the SEER database. This data is maintained by the National Cancer Institute. Instead of the typical stage 0 to stage IV, the SEER database groups statistics based on its own stages. These stages are referred to as:
- Localized, meaning the cancer has not spread outside of the pancreas
- Regional, meaning the cancer has spread but only to nearby lymph nodes or organs
- Distant, meaning the cancer has spread to distant organs or tissues
Based on information gathered between 2009 and 2015, the five-year relative survival rates for pancreatic cancer are:
- 37 percent for localized cases
- 12 percent for regional cases
- 3 percent for distant cases
For all stages combined, the SEER data suggests a five-year relative survival rate of 9 percent.
These rates can seem low, and the numbers themselves can get confusing. However, it’s important to understand that these are merely estimates based on previous outcomes from the total population, meaning that your specific case is almost assuredly going to be different. Survival rates do not predict any single pancreatic cancer patient’s case. They do not take everything into account. Other factors that contribute to survival rates include:
- Your age
- Your general health
- The cancer’s response to treatment
- Tumor grade
- Extent of resection
Furthermore, the data is based on people diagnosed and treated at least five years earlier. Pancreatic cancer treatment options and medicine in general are constantly improving, so you may have a better outlook than survival rates can actually show.
The Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
As mentioned, symptoms of pancreatic cancer usually do not occur in its earliest stages, but it is important to know what signs and symptoms to look for in order to get a proper diagnosis. If you’re wondering what are the signs of pancreatic cancer to watch for, the most common symptoms include:
- Jaundice (yellowing in your skin and eyes, dark urine, stools that are lighter in color, itchy skin)
- Pain in your abdomen that spread to your back
- Sudden unintended weight loss or loss of appetite
- Blood clots
- Nausea and vomiting
- (Rarely) a new diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that grows increasingly difficult to manage
All of the above symptoms can be caused by other diseases or disorders, which is why it is even more important to consult your doctor and seek a professional diagnosis as soon as possible.
Detecting Pancreatic Cancer Early
While some forms of cancer do have screening tests for those without symptoms, pancreatic cancer does not have a currently recommended routine screening procedure in people of average risk. However, there are some tests available for those known to have a higher risk, particularly those who have a family history of pancreatic cancer or other forms of cancer. This increased risk is sometimes caused by genetics, so genetic tests can look for gene changes that may lead to certain inherited conditions and an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. It’s important to understand that these tests look for the potential to develop inherited conditions. They do not look specifically for pancreatic cancer.
Alternately, people with a family history of pancreatic cancer or with a high risk (like those with existing diabetes) can undergo certain tests. This includes MRIs and endoscopic ultrasound tests.
Is There a Cure for Pancreatic Cancer?
There is no known cure for any type of cancer, pancreatic cancer included. However, there are numerous forms of pancreatic cancer treatment that can help to potentially destroy cancer cells and manage symptoms. If the cancer cannot be removed yet, treatment focuses on limiting the cancer’s growth while improving your quality of life. The exact form of treatment depends on the extent of the cancer.
Surgery tends to be one of the primary treatments for pancreatic cancer. Surgical procedures focus on removing as much of the cancer as possible. This means that it is reserved for cases where the cancer is relatively localized to the pancreas. Surgery can come with its own risks, including infection, and a long recovery period. Surgery may also require removal of surrounding organs, like the stomach, small intestine, and gallbladder, which can understandably lead to significant changes in your life.
Outside of and along with surgery, you may undergo radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells and can be injected or administered orally. Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. These treatments can be used on their own, combined, or used before or after surgery.
Immunotherapy is a growing field that involves using certain drugs to stimulate the immune system’s natural abilities to fight cancer cells. Many types of cancer can essentially use the body against itself to hide in plain sight. Immunotherapy strengthens the immune system to better identify and respond to cancer cells.
Although survival rates do play an important role in navigating treatments for pancreatic cancer, try not to focus too hard on the numbers. They are not designed to make any sort of personal predictions. They are not there to tell you the life that you will actually live. Consult your doctor to learn more about survival rates and determine a treatment plan that works right for you.