Pancreatic cancer: are you at risk?

Heidi Mallis, Cancer Prevention & Treatment Fund

Pancreatic cancer is the 3rd leading cause of cancer death among women and men in the U.S.[1]

Surprising Facts

  • The five-year survival rate is less than 8%. This figure has improved only slightly since 1975, when it was 3%.[2]
  • There is no reliable screening test for early detection of pancreatic cancer.[3]
  • Only about 2.5% of the National Cancer Institute’s federal research funding is currently allocated to pancreatic cancer.[4]
  • Pancreatic cancer has claimed the lives of several public figures including: actors Patrick Swayze and Alan Rickman, opera tenor Lucianno Pavarotti, and professor and bestselling author Dr. Randy Pausch.[5]

Risk Factors

Every year, more than 50,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., and more than 40,000 people die from the disease.[6] It is known as a “silent killer” because its symptoms (pain, jaundice, and weight loss) can easily be mistaken for other diseases. Diagnosis is often at an advanced stage when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, making treatment more difficult. That is why new research is needed to help identify earlier warning signs that could lower the fatality rate for this disease.

Several risk factors are known. Most are common and can’t be changed. The following traits increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • 60 years of age or older
  • African American
  • Male
  • Smoking:  Smokers are 2-3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than nonsmokers, and smoking is responsible for 20-30% of all pancreatic cancer cases.
  • Type 2 diabetes:  Several studies show that people with diabetes are more likely to also develop pancreatic cancer and vice versa, but it is unclear whether diabetes causes pancreatic cancer or is caused by pancreatic cancer.[7][8]
  • Family history of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), ovarian, or colon cancer. If a person has an immediate family member who has any of these types of cancer, his or her chance of developing pancreatic cancer is tripled.[9]

Research has shown that family history or shared genes were a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. In 2009, new light was shed on the role of genes when a new study showed that people with blood type O may have a lower risk of pancreatic cancer than those with blood types A, B, or AB. The study was conducted by a group of researchers from several academic institutions that are part of the Pancreatic Cancer Cohort Consortium, which is affiliated with the National Cancer Institute (NCI).[10] The group hopes to further examine genetic risks, and future findings could help increase early detection and prevention of pancreatic cancer.

Regardless of blood type and other risk factors, individuals can reduce their risk of developing pancreatic cancer by lowering controllable risk factors. A study revealed that a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, Vitamin C, and fiber might actually reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.[11] Other risk factors, such as smoking or diabetes related to weight gain, can be reduced by quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, which decreases a person’s risk of many other diseases as well. In addition, one study of 60,000 adults indicates that drinking fewer (non-diet) soft drinks may decrease the risk of pancreatic cancer.[12] The authors suggest that sugary drinks, by increasing insulin levels, help fuel pancreatic cancer cell growth. They also speculate that people who consume more soft drinks tend to be more likely to smoke and to eat red meat, all of which are considered potential risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

References

  1. Cancer Treatment Centers of America. (2016, October). What should you know about pancreatic cancer? http://www.cancercenter.com/~/media/Images/Others/Misc/10-2016-pancreatic-infographic.jpg
  2. National Cancer Institute. (2016, April). Cancer Stat Facts: Pancreas Cancer. https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/pancreas.html
  3. American Cancer Society (2017). Can cancer of the pancreas be found early? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/detection.html
  4. Office of Budget and Finance. Fiscal year 2015 fact book. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-nci/budget/fact-book/data/research-funding
  5. Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (2016). Public figures affected by pancreatic cancer. http://media.pancan.org/pdf/Public-Figures-affected-by-pancreatic-cancer.pdf
  6. American Cancer Society (2017). Key statistics for pancreatic cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
  7. Coughlin SS, Calle EE, Teras LR, Petrelli J, Thun MJ (2004). Diabetes mellitus as a predictor of cancer mortality in a large cohort of US adults. American Journal of Epidemiology, 159: 1160-1167.
  8. European Cancer Organisation. (2017, January). Diabetes or its rapid deterioration can be an early warning sign for pancreatic cancer. http://www.eccocongress.org/Global/News/ECCO2017-News/2017/01/ECCO2017-NEWS-Diabetes-or-its-rapid-deterioration-can-be-an-early-warning-sign-for-pancreatic-cancer
  9. National Cancer Institute (2017). Pancreatic cancer. U.S. National Institutes of Health. https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic
  10. Amundadottir L, Kraft P, Stolzenberg-Solomon RZ, et al (2009, August 2). Genome-wide association study identifies variants in the ABO locus associated with susceptibility to pancreatic cancer. Nature Genetics, September 2009; 41(9): 986-990.
  11. Ghadirian P, Lynch HT, and Krewski D (2003). Epidemiology of pancreatic cancer: an overview. Cancer Detection and Prevention, 27(2): 87-93.
  12. Muelle NT, Odegaard A, Anderson A, Yuan J-M, Koh W-P, Pereira MA. Soft Drink and Juice Consumption and Risk of Pancreatic Cancer: The Singapore Chinese Health Study. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 2010.19(2);447-455.