What you need to know about pancreatic cancer

Cancer is arguably the most feared word in the English language. Even with new approaches to treatment on the horizon today, hearing that you or a loved one has cancer can strike fear into your heart, and present you with a dizzying array of choices to be made.

Some cancers, though, are even more disturbing, because their rapid progress makes life expectancy cruelly short. Pancreatic cancer is one of these.

Consider this: of approximately 55,440 people who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018, about 44,330 will die. That’s almost 80 percent.

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Of those diagnosed, 90 percent are over age 55 and 70 percent are older than 65. The median survival length from diagnosis if left untreated is about 3 ½ months. With good treatment, this increases to about eight months, though many people have survived for ten or more years.

These are grim statistics. But does that mean there’s nothing to do but wait and wonder if you’ll be a victim? Not when you’re armed with everything you need to know…

What causes pancreatic cancer?

As with many diseases, there are risk factors for pancreatic cancer that can be avoided and some that are inescapable.

Risk factors beyond your control include:

Age. As mentioned earlier, the older you get, the greater your risk for pancreatic cancer.

Gender. Men develop pancreatic cancer more than women. This could be partially due to more men being smokers.

Race. For reasons that are unclear, African Americans are slightly more likely to develop the disease than Caucasians. It might be due to higher rates of other risk factors, including diabetes.

Inherited genetic syndromes. These genetic mutations that are passed from one generation to the next could account for as much as ten percent of pancreatic cancer. These include inherited breast and ovarian cancer caused by the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, as well as Lynch syndrome, familial pancreatitis, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, all of which involve gene mutations. If you have family members who’ve been diagnosed with this cancer, you might consider genetic testing.

Cirrhosis of the liver. This condition increases the likelihood of pancreatic cancer.

Risk factors you can control:

Alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, noted above as a definite risk factor.

Smoking. Is there anything that smoking doesn’t have a hand in causing? Between 20 and 30 percent of pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by smoking.

Obesity. This puts you at 20 percent higher risk for pancreatic cancer. Even just carrying extra weight around the midsection could increase your risk.

Chemicals. Workplace exposure to dry cleaning and other chemicals increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Type 2 diabetes. A 20-year study in the Journal of the National Institute, which focused on African-American and Hispanic individuals due to the high prevalence of diabetes in both populations, found that individuals who developed diabetes were more than twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared with those who did not develop diabetes.

Oddly, type 2 diabetes can also be considered a symptom of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer appears to impede the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas from responding adequately to this insulin resistance. This results in the development of diabetes.

In fact, the relationship between pancreatic cancer and diabetes is quite complex. You can read more about it here.

Signs and symptoms to look for

The pancreas is buried deep within the body, behind other organs. That, and the fact that pancreatic cancer often causes no early symptoms, make this killer difficult to detect until it has spread to other organs.

Some signs of pancreatic cancer also occur with other conditions, but if you have one or two of these, it’s time to get checked.

Jaundice. This yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes is usually the first sign of pancreatic cancer. It is caused by the buildup of bile, which cannot pass through a bile duct being blocked or pushed by tumors.

Dark urine is also caused by a bile blockage.

Other symptoms include light or greasy stools, back and belly pain, weight loss and poor appetite, and an enlarged liver or gallbladder.

Preventive steps to take

The healthy choices that could help you be as proactive as possible at heading off pancreatic cancer are the same ones that can keep you from ending up with diabetes, cancer and heart disease…

Eat whole foods. Stay away from the foods that put you at highest risk for cancer: processed foods.  Instead, eat more of the foods that protect your pancreas, like olive oil and fish.

Take the right supplements.  Cut your risk of pancreatic cancer with vitamins C and E, as well as selenium and magnesium. One study found that every 100-mg per day decrease in magnesium was associated with a 24 percent increase in cases of pancreatic cancer.

Here is more useful information on the other benefits of magnesium, and a list of foods that are rich in this cancer-fighting mineral.

Get active. A couple of years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that obese people with sedentary lifestyles have twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer as those who are active and not obese.

Watch your medications. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine found that taking a type of blood pressure medication known as short-acting calcium channel blockers increases the risk of pancreatic cancer. Talk to your doctor about other ways to reduce your blood pressure including diet and exercise, if possible.

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Sources:

  1. Pancreatic Cancer: Risk Factors — American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)
  2. About Pancreatic Cancer — American Cancer Society, Inc.

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Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.