Compared to cancers of the breast and lung, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare. Despite the lower incidence rate, it is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. According to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, the five-year survival rate of patients with pancreatic cancer is only 7 percent.
What Makes Pancreatic Cancer Such a Deadly Disease?
“There are three main reasons pancreatic cancer is so deadly,” explained Dr. Conan Kinsey, a physician, and scientist at the University of Utah Health and Huntsman Cancer Institute. These reasons include:
- Late diagnosis
- The location of the pancreas
- High chance of metastasis
Similar to most cancers, the earlier the diagnosis, the higher the probabilities a person has of surviving pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, most patients do not have symptoms of pancreatic cancer in earlier stages. As a result, patients do not seek medical assistance until the cancer is in an advanced stage.
Second, the location of the pancreas is what Kinsey calls a “high-price real estate.” Several blood vessels are surrounding the pancreas, making surgery a complex process. The main parts of the intestinal tract are also in the same area.
Finally, pancreatic cancer cells can spread to other tissues and organs in the body. “About 85 percent of patients already have metastatic cancer when they are diagnosed,” Kinsey explained.
Celebrities Diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer does not discriminate, regardless of whether one is rich or famous. Below are just five of the public figures who have or had pancreatic cancer.
- Steve Jobs: In 2004, former CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc. Steve Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic endocrine cancer — a rare form of pancreatic cancer. After eight years of battling the relentless disease, Jobs died in October 2011.
- Alex Trebek: The host of “Jeopardy!” announced that he has stage IV pancreatic cancer in March 2019.
- Michael Landon: When actor Michael Landon received his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, it was already in the late stages and had reached his liver. Despite intensive treatment, Landon died of the disease in April 1991.
- Joan Crawford: Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in 1971 after suffering a heart attack.
- Luciano Pavarotti: Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti underwent treatment for a malignant pancreatic tumor in July 2006, which forced him to cancel his farewell tour. Over a year later, Pavarotti succumbed to the disease.
The diagnoses of these high-profile celebrities, especially the death of Steve Jobs, placed a much-needed spotlight on pancreatic cancer.
A Key to Prevention is Understanding Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
The underlying cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown. However, several factors may increase a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer. These include:
- Age. Most people who receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis are older than 45 years old. Still, adult men and women of any age can develop this lethal disease.
- Gender. Men are more prone to pancreatic cancer.
- Race and ethnicity. African Americans and people of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage tend to develop pancreatic cancer more than Caucasians, Asians, and Hispanics.
- Smoking. Those who smoke and use tobacco products are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers. Learn more about quitting smoking here.
- Unhealthy diet and obesity. Eating fatty and caloric food is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Multiple scientific research has shown that overweight and obese individuals have a higher risk of developing and dying from pancreatic cancer. Drinking alcohol in heavy amounts also raises the risk of pancreatic cancer through recurrent pancreatitis.
- Diabetes. Not everyone who has diabetes will develop pancreatic cancer. However, it is still a known risk factor. In fact, suddenly developing diabetes later on in adulthood can be an early sign of pancreatic cancer.
- Family history. Pancreatic cancer may run in families. It may also be associated with hereditary conditions that increase the risk of other cancer types. When pancreatic cancer occurs in someone with a family history of the disease, it is referred to as familial pancreatic cancer. The risk is higher in families with two or more first-degree relatives who have received pancreatic cancer diagnoses.
- Genetic syndromes. Family members with certain inherited conditions have a significantly raised risk of pancreatic cancer and other cancer types. These include the following, which you can learn more about in our Genetic Disorders That Increase Cancer Risks article:
- Hereditary pancreatitis
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome
- Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
- Lynch syndrome
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- Familial adenomatous polyposis
- Familial malignant melanoma and pancreatic cancer
- Exposure to chemicals. Constant exposure to certain chemicals, including pesticides, specific dyes, benzene, and petrochemicals may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Bacterial infection. A widespread bacteria called Helicobacter pylori causes inflammation and ulcers in the stomach, as well as elevates the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
- Hepatitis B infection. Hepatitis viruses impact the liver. A 2010 study has shown that a previous infection with hepatitis B was twice as common among people with pancreatic cancer. Nonetheless, more research is necessary to learn more about this link.
- Chronic pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is a painful disease characterized by inflammation of the pancreas. A 2013 study suggests that having chronic pancreatitis may heighten the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
- Cirrhosis. Cirrhosis occurs when scar tissue replaces damaged liver cells. Most cases of cirrhosis in the United States are due to alcohol abuse. Other identified causes include viral hepatitis, excess iron in the liver from a disorder called hemochromatosis, and other rare types of chronic liver disease.
While some of these factors are preventable, such as smoking and exposure to chemicals, discussing preventive methods with a physician is still the best defense against pancreatic cancer. Together, you and your doctor can develop a strategy that may combat the onset of pancreatic-cancer-causing diseases, undergo genetic testing, and more.
To help you get started, here are some online reading materials about cancer prevention:
- 10 Commandments of Cancer Prevention
- The Role of Antioxidants in Cancer Prevention
- Fearless at 60: Cancer Prevention for Older Adults
The Future of Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Is Bright
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and scientists are working on better understanding how pancreatic cancer cells develop, multiply, and spread. There is also a multitude of research focused on finding refined treatments, including targeted therapies and more non-invasive techniques.
While the promise of new treatments creates hope for a future in which pancreatic cancer is not the fatal disease it is today, New Hope Unlimited started the process almost 20 years ago. If you are looking for a powerful combination between conventional and alternative pancreatic cancer treatment, contact us now to schedule your consultation.