Are You at Risk? The Top Causes of Pancreatic Cancer
Nearly 50,000 men and women are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. Many people begin experiencing symptoms, but without pre-screening go undiagnosed until it has progressed. Understanding the causes and risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer is the first step to catching it early.
About the Pancreas
The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system and endocrine system. It produces several important hormones, such as insulin, glucagon, somatostatin, and pancreatic polypeptide for helping the blood circulate. It also helps in digestion by secreting pancreatic juice enzymes that break down carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids and prepare food for absorption through the small intestine. The presence of abnormal cells in the pancreatic tissue causes this type of cancer. They begin reproducing uncontrollably and can spread to other organs if not treated. As part of the endocrine system, it has direct contact with blood vessels that may carry cancerous cells to other organs. The islet cell clusters of the pancreas play a crucial role in glucose metabolism and the regulation of glucose levels in the blood. The four types of pancreatic cancer include Adenocarcinoma, Neuroendocrine neoplasms, pseudopapillary neoplasms, and intrapapillary mucinous neoplasms.
Risk Factors We Can Control
About 3% of all cancers in the US are pancreatic cancers and account for up to 7% of cancer-related deaths. The overall risk of getting pancreatic cancer is 1 in 67 (1.5%). Certain issues increase the likelihood of getting pancreatic cancer. Some of those factors are within the patient’s control:
- Smoking. Smoking doubles the risk of pancreatic cancer. Research shows that smoking targets cancer fighting cells in the body. Foreign contaminants from smoke enter the blood stream and damage the pancreas. Smoking is the cause of between 20% and 30% of exocrine cases. Cigar and pipe smoking, as well as smokeless tobacco, also increases risk.
- Excess weight and obesity. Obese people are 20% more likely to contract pancreatic cancer.
- Workplace chemicals. Pesticides, dyes, and metal refining chemicals may increase cancer risk. Patients may ask their supervisors for Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for safe workplace practices or conduct personal research on dangerous chemicals.
- Diet. Colorful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may help prevent cancer. Studies are inconclusive on the specific effects of diet on pancreatic cancer.
Risk Factors We Cannot Change
Some factors our outside of the patient’s control, but being aware of them can encourage early screening:
- Age. Most pancreatic cancer patients are older than 45. About 67% are 65 years old or above. The average patient is 71 when diagnosed.
- Gender. Men are 30% more likely than women to contract pancreatic cancer. This may be correlated to increased smoking rates among men. Studies are inconclusive.
- Family history. Studies have shown a correlation between family history and pancreatic cancer. The nature of inherited risks is still unknown.
- Genetic syndromes. Abnormal genes cause 10% of pancreatic cancers as well as other problems. Hereditary syndromes that increase risk may include melanoma, pancreatitis, non-polyposis colorectal cancer, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, and Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.
- Diabetes. The reason for diabetic tendency toward pancreatic cancer is unknown. Most of the risk is with those who have type 2 diabetes.
- Liver cirrhosis. People with liver damage from hepatitis, alcohol use, or other factors have scarred livers and a risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
- Stomach infections. Ulcers from Helicobacter pylori bacteria or increased stomach acid may contribute to pancreatic cancer.
Several factors have an unclear effect on the risk of pancreatic cancer, including physical inactivity, coffee, and alcohol.
The pancreas is above the intestines in the center of the torso. Being deep inside the body, pancreatic surgeons have a difficult time detecting cancer promptly. Tumors cannot be seen or felt from the outside. Patients do not usually exhibit symptoms of pancreatic cancer until it has spread to other organs. Waiting until symptoms show makes pancreatic cancer treatment more difficult. Screening tests may be used to look for cancer when no symptoms are present, but people who are at the average risk of 1.5% may not need to undergo screenings. No studies have shown that screening decreases the risk of dying from pancreatic cancer. Protein levels sometimes rise when someone has pancreatic cancer. These proteins can be detected with blood tests, but protein count does not always rise when someone is contracting pancreatic cancer. When patients exhibit any of the following symptoms of pancreatic cancer, they should immediately call a doctor for a screening:
- Painless jaundice
- Abdominal or back pain
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Unexplained weight loss
- New onset diabetes
Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Options
Pancreatic surgeons may use the Whipple Procedure to treat pancreatic cancer. In this complex operation, the head of the pancreas, duodenum, and common bile duct are removed and reconstructed. Because this procedure is technically demanding, it is important to choose an experienced pancreatic surgeon. Individualized treatment is also imperative, as each patient has unique needs. Dr. Mark Fraiman, MD and his experienced team of surgeons collectively decide which approach is best for a particular patient. Patients may expect an evaluation and comprehensive treatment plan within 48 hours of calling Dr. Fraiman’s office.