Facts about pancreatic cancer

May 01, 2006

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that lies behind the stomach. The organ is essential to the digestive process because it produces enzymes that help digest protein, fat and carbohydrates, and it produces insulin.

What are symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

In most pancreatic cancer cases, there are no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. In later stages, the cancer might cause pressure in the abdomen and pain in the upper abdomen or lower back, says Sandra Hoffman, associate scientist and assistant director of the Hagerstown-based George W. Comstock Center for Public Health Research and Prevention.

Jaundice, yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, is associated with later stages of pancreatic cancer. Nausea, loss of appetite and weight loss are also possible symptoms.


How common is pancreatic cancer?

Each year more than 33,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year 33,730 people will be found to have the cancer.

The Comstock Center for Public Health has recorded an average of 16 pancreatic cancer cases per year in Washington County, Hoffman says.

Three-fourths of pancreatic patients will die within the same year they are diagnosed. About one in 25 pancreatic cancer patients will live for five years or more after diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society.

Who gets pancreatic cancer?

About 20 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are hereditary, says Dr. Sanjay Jagannath, assistant professor of medicine and gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Most pancreatic cancer patients are older than 50, men are more likely to develop the cancer than women, blacks are more likely to develop the cancer than people of other races, and heavy smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Diabetes, chronic pancreatitis and obesity also are considered to increase the chance of developing pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

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