What do you know about pancreatic cancer? If your answer is little to nothing, this month is for you. November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and is the perfect time to equip yourself to fully answer that question. Your knowledge could be part of improving, or even saving, the lives of those around you and yourself.
The pancreas is a gland organ that serves a couple of specific functions, mainly insulin secretion to help the body process sugars and production of digestive juices to help the body digest food. When abnormal cells in the pancreas form and start to grow uncontrollably, outliving the normal cells, a cancerous tumor can form. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer because the symptoms can be vague, and by the time symptoms show, the cancer has often spread throughout the pancreas and into other organs. For this reason, the survival rate of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is only seven percent. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network estimates that in the next decade the death rate from pancreatic cancer will surpass that of colorectal and breast cancer.
The statistics are definitely depressing, but they point to an urgency to learn our risks and take action to reduce them now. Knowing your risk of getting pancreatic cancer will go a long way in helping you and your doctor assess the future—what you can do now to reduce the risk, whether additional testing might be beneficial, and what to watch for going forward. To better understand your risks, you may want to start by taking this risk assessment quiz. Prevention is the best course of action for decreasing the risk of pancreatic cancer. It is estimated that healthy weight alone can prevent 19%, or one out of five, pancreatic cancer cases in the U.S. each year. Healthy weight doesn’t just help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, but several other cancers as well, like colon, kidney, esophageal, gallbladder, and breast cancers. It also helps prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight with diet and exercise routine can be a challenge, but the rewards are vast and certainly worth the effort. Another large factor in preventing pancreatic cancer is tobacco use. This is actually the number one contributor to pancreatic cancer, accounting for one out of four cases of the disease each year. If you currently smoke, especially if you are 45 years old or older, get help to stop smoking. Don’t delay, because the benefit increases the longer you are smoke-free.
If you or someone you know does develop pancreatic cancer, here are some things you can expect as far as treatment. Occasionally surgery is an option, and there are a couple types of surgeries that may be performed. The first is curative, where the doctor determines an entire tumor or set of tumors can be removed. The second is palliative, which is a treatment for a symptom of the cancer like fixing a blocked duct or intestine. Another option is to destroy the tumors without surgery by using extreme heat or cold (ablation) or blocking blood flow to the cancerous cells and causing them to die (embolization). Both ablation and embolization are usually used in conjunction with other treatments.
In more serious stages of pancreatic cancer, radiation can be a helpful treatment. Radiation may be given after surgery or to relieve pain in patients who aren’t healthy enough for surgery. It is frequently used along with chemotherapy in people whose cancer has spread into other organs and is too progressed to benefit from surgery. Like radiation, chemotherapy is also a common treatment for pancreatic cancer that cannot be removed through surgery or in addition to surgery to help prevent the cancer’s return. No matter the treatment plan, part of it will probably include pain control through medicines and non-drug methods to provide relief.
Perhaps this information has sparked some additional questions or concerns, or maybe you have discovered that you have one or more risk factors. Whatever your concerns are, Dr. Sameer Islam is happy to discuss them with you. In the spirit of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month, make an appointment today.