Pancreatic Cancer Facts

Purple Ribbon for this Cancer

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Heartbreak of Pancreatic Cancer

I recently attended a funeral for a 32 year old man that died of pancreatic cancer. This horrid disease is most often diagnosed when a patient is already in stage 4, which is the worse stage. This is due to the lack of symptoms. His girlfriend, mother and 50 other family members attended his funeral, and I could not help but think with all the advances in medicine this is an area where advances are almost absent. Certainly, 32 years old is too young to die.

November is pancreatic cancer month and their ribbon is purple. We were each five a small purple ribbon at the funeral.

Steve Jobs - Apple

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Sally Ride - Astronaut

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Patrick Swayze and wife

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Well-known Stars Who Died of Pancreatic Disease

Most of us are aware that Steve Jobs of Apple Computers recently passed away from this disease. No amount of money can cure this disease. Of course, we remember Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, Luciano Pavarotti, Donna Reed, Dizzy Gillespie and many others. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice also had a cancerous tumor removed early and appears to be in remission. Each year there are approximately 45,220 new cases diagnosed, and 38,460 deaths according to the National Cancer Society.

Typical Prognosis of Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen, which controls blood sugar and secretes enzymes that aid in the digestion of food. Most of the people diagnosed with this disease do not survive, even when it is diagnosed earlier.

It is an aggressive cancer that quickly spreads to the liver and other areas of the body. Symptoms do not typically appear until the cancer has already advanced, so only four percent of patients live beyond five years.

Pancreas Location

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Michael Landon

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Some Earlier Warning Signs

The pancreas is only four to six inches long and shaped somewhat like a tadpole. The tail end of the pancreas produces insulin, but tumors are rare in that area. The larger end (or head) of the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes, and exocrine tumors in that area are more common but more difficult to detect.

Possible Signs of Cancer

There are some possible signs of cancer and it is good to be aware of these symptoms as they may save your life.

These are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

  • Diabetes with a sudden onset – endocrine tumors are rare but would cause this effect
  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss, sometimes due to the inability to digest fatty foods
  • Skin or white of the eye turning yellow – caused when the cancer has blocked the bile duct in the head of the pancreas
  • Smelly, pale, floating stools – due to the loss of digestive enzymes, so the body is unable to digest fatty foods
  • Dark, tarry stools – caused by upper intestine bleeding
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Skin of the palms and sole of the feet become itchy, which is due to bilirubin from the liver
  • Loss of appetite approximately six to eight months before typical diagnosis
  • A change in taste – some people suddenly lose their taste for coffee or alcohol
  • Abdominal pain – described as a gnawing pain, not a sharp cramp or ache, and it radiates toward the back, plus it goes away when leaning forward
  • Enlarged gall bladder – the blockage in the bile duct may cause an enlargement in the gallbladder

Obtaining an Early Diagnosis

If you have some of the symptoms, document them and see a physician. The doctor will probably schedule some specific tests, as an ultrasound or CAT scan can diagnose this disease. A biopsy may follow an abnormal result to further diagnose cancer.

In addition, there is a new blood test (CA 19-9), which is a biomarker for this cancer, however, it often takes too much time for the CA 19-9 to reach a detectable level to diagnose the disease during the early stages. Ruth Bador Ginsburg got a CAT scan early and had surgery, so she is one of the lucky ones.

What Causes Cancer?

Cells of the pancreas develop mutations in their DNA, which cause the unhealthy cells to rapidly grow. They also live longer than the normal healthy cells.

The risk factors for this disease include:

  • Being African American
  • Obesity
  • Pancreatitis (chronic inflammation)
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of genetic markers, like BRCA2 gene mutation and FAMMM
  • Personal family history of this disease
  • Smoking

Procedures and Complications

Sometimes the doctor will place a stent in the bile duct to keep it open, and there are times a surgery will be necessary to create a new way for the bile to flow from the liver to the intestines. Pain can also be problem if a tumor presses on abdominal nerves, in which case radiation therapy may be used in addition to pain medication. A bowel obstruction is another possible complication that may require a stent or even surgery. Vomiting and nausea may cause further weight loss.

Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

Any treatment will depend on the location and the stage of the cancer. Age, overall health and personal preference will all impact the treatment. The main goal is to eliminate the cancer, but if that is not possible, trying to stop the spread of the disease is the next goal.

Surgical options are infrequent since most patients are diagnosed too late. However, when the cancerous tumor is located on the head of the pancreas there is a surgical procedure used, which is called the Whipple procedure. It is a difficult surgery, and the recovery takes several weeks. Surgery is sometimes performed on other areas of the pancreas as well, but it is important to have a well-experienced surgery on the pancreas.

Radiation may be used prior to surgery or following surgery. Chemotherapy is also a common treatment and may be used in conjunction with radiation.

Homeopathic and Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments are often used as a supplement to traditional therapy. Some of these therapies include acupuncture, herbal medicine, folk medicine, particular diets, faith healing, chiropractor, naturopathy, massage and music therapy.

New Clinical Studies

Scientists have learned more about the DNA causing the pancreatic cancer when there is no family history. Surprisingly, in these cases the cancer cells initially grow slowly over a three year period. Researches are working to develop tests to detect these cells.

The bulk of the research is focused on new combinations of chemotherapy. Since scientists have learned that pancreatic cancer cells are different from normal cells, they are developing new drugs that specifically target these cancer cells.

Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate

The American Cancer Society ranks all four stages of pancreatic cancer with a one year survival rate at 20 percent and a five year rate of only four percent. Patients with smaller tumors when diagnosed have a better prognosis.

As this is such a difficult disease, much of the treatment is focused on pain relief. The patient and their family need a great deal of emotional support as well until science develops an effective cure.

© 2013 Pamela Oglesby

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Comments 45 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

It is just an ugly disease, Pamela. Good job of exposing it and giving valuable information. I have been so blessed with good health.....I feel like every day that I am breathing is a bonus at this point. :)


always exploring profile image

always exploring 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

I found this to be very informative. Pancreatic cancer is the most dreaded type of cancer due to the low survival rate. What a shame, Michael Landon, he was a great actor. When i was reading this i thought about Steve Jobs, no amount of money will save you, you know everything was done for him. Great hub Pam. I am glad you keep up with medical trends and write about them.....


DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

A well researched hub on Pancreatic Cancer I have always wanted to know about the symptoms and finally read your hub. Voted up, Informative, useful, and interesting facts.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is a very useful and important hub, Pamela. Pancreatic cancer is a horrible disease. Your article will help people identify the warning signs and deal with the problem.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

You said it so right dearest Mary,

So much heartbreak here with such cancer, as it seems, at least in the cases I have known, to be found too late and then they are gone, just that quick. The Mayor of our little town came knocking on our door one weekend with his two very young grandsons, and he look as though he was in the best of health, asd he is was a young man, you know, in his 50s or so. Then the very next week, we received a message from our church to pray for the Town's mayor as he has pancreatic cancer. Then it seems it was like the very next week he died! Maybe he knew of it before anyone else, and had it for a long time, but he looked great just two weeks earlier! So devasting.

Thanks for this insightful hub here.

Voted up +++ and sharing

(will return to share, buttons not appearing at the moment)

God bless, Faith Reaper


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Billy, You are fortunate to have good health and viewing it as a blessing. This is an ugly disease for sure. Thanks for your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Ruby, The fact that no amount of money and best medical care couldn't cure Steve Jobs really tells you that this is a horrible disease. I thought maybe many people did not know much about this disease. I appreciate your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

DDE, I'm glad this hub was informative to you as it is good to know the symptoms also. Thanks so much for your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Alicia, I am glad you feel that way as that was my purpose. It is possible that a person could notice some of the signs and get diagnosed ealier. Thank you for your comments.


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 3 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi Pamela great well written and informative article about this type of cancer, it is a silent killer . Thanks for sharing all this useful information !

Vote up and more !!! Sharing !


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

It is a horrible cancer. You have shown here being rich or famous doesn't save you from it. ( I loved Patrick and Michael so much!) I often wonder when I hear of someone famous dying like this why they didn't have better health care but cancer is one sneaky killer yet I still wonder how many try a natural cure. I have been so blessed using natural remedies for my health I think I would try natural before anything else.


bac2basics profile image

bac2basics 3 years ago from Spain

Hi Pamela I lost a very dear friend to this horrible cancer in January this year, on her birthday. As you say, by the time it was diagnosed it had advanced so much that she wasn´t even offered treatment. She also suffered a stroke just after the cancer was discovered but I don´t know if this was linked to the cancer or not. Despite how ill she was she married her best friend whilst in hospice, hung on for Christmas at home and then made it to her birthday, she set herself all these goals and hung on until she reached them. knowing what I do about this cancer and also lung cancer, should I ever get either I would opt out of having treatment. hard as this hub was to read at least you were very honest in how you described it and how usually lethal it is. I don´t see the point in people going through the regimes of Chemotherapy and the rest in mostly un- curable cancers.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Tom, You are right, it is the silent killer. Thanks for your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Javkir, I loved Patrick and Michael also and hated they died with this horrible disease. Some people have survived, so I wonder about natural rememdies also. Even scientists have found the benefits of many homeopathic remedies. Thanks so much for your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

bac2basics, I am sorry to hear you lost a friend this way. I doubt the storke was linked to the cancer, but I am not a doctor, so I don't know that for sure. I think your views on what to do if they are faced with a disease like this are quite common. I appreciate your comments.


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

This is a very thorough treatment of the subject of pancreatic cancer, Pamela. Your list of possible signs and symptoms of this insidious disease may well help some reader to prolong his or her life.


Sue Bailey profile image

Sue Bailey 3 years ago from South Yorkshire, UK

Any cancer is horrible but this is one of the worst. Thanks for publishing this hub it may make people aware of the symptoms and prompt them to seek early diagnosis. Voted up and useful


tobusiness profile image

tobusiness 3 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

Hi Pamela, this is a very unforgiving disease, I've recently attended a lecture about how we can better manage this terrible condition. You've done an excellent job spreading awareness.

My best to you.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

drbj. , I truly hopeyou are right. That is why I write these types of articles. Thanks so much for your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Sue, This is one of the worst and I hope your are right. Thank you for your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Rose, I agree that is is a very unforgiving disease, and I wpould like everyone to know the initiatial symptoms as it is so often diagnosed too latel I appreciate your comments.


Karen Hellier profile image

Karen Hellier 3 years ago from Georgia

So sorry that you lost someone to this disease. Cancer is such a thief. It robs its victims of so much. I wish they would find a cure for cancer in my lifetime, but it looks doubtful.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Karen, I wish they would find a cure also and so many people die of all types of cancers. Thank you for your comments.


epbooks profile image

epbooks 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

Thanks for posting this. I've had relatives that have died from this cancer and it is awful. It's too bad that there is no cure yet. Hopefully one day... Voted up.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

ebooks, It is an awful disease as you know only to well. I sure hope they come up with a cure and they really need a test to detect the disease earlier. Thanks for your comments.


midget38 profile image

midget38 3 years ago from Singapore

Any form of cancer is a disease that should never ever be. Thanks for sharing, Pamela, these fascinating facts. My grand dad passed away from it too.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 3 years ago from South Africa

A close friend of mine had died from Pancreatic cancer. It was hard to see him losing weight and fighting pain. Not knowing for almost a year what was wrong - then knowing far too late - was indeed his lot. Thanks for this most interesting info, Pam :)


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

midget, I agree with you as they are all horrible. I am sorry to hear about your granddad. Thank you for your comments.

Martie, It is such a difficult way to die. The problem so often is they go undiagnosed, then nothing can be done. I appreciate your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

midget, I agree with you as they are all horrible. I am sorry to hear about your granddad. Thank you for your comments.

Martie, It is such a difficult way to die. The problem so often is they go undiagnosed, then nothing can be done. I appreciate your comments.


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

Highlighting the issues surrounding such diseases is important. Thank you for sharing information and encouraging the research. Have you inquired into where the best research on pancreatic cancer is being performed?


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

The first time I ever heard of Pancreatic Cancer was when Michael Landon (I continue to adore him) was stricken. It's a horrible cancer. Well, all cancers are horrible. My cousin was diagnosed at age 40 and died within 6 months. She took good care of herself with a healthy lifestyle and she still couldn't beat the beast. It's very sad about your 32 yr old friend. I agree, much too young.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

RTalloni, There are several universities and hospitals performing research at this time,- and I really don't know which one is the best. I guess when one actually makes a big breakthrough we will have that answer. I would love to see a cure and also a way to diagnose the disease earlier. Thank you for your comments.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Linda, I alwaays loved Michael Landon also. It seems no one lasts long once they get this diagnosis. I appreciate your comments.


Vickiw 3 years ago

Hi Pamela, I have a dear friend who has just survived her 5th year after being diagnosed. She has had very aggressive treatment, and I don't know how she has managed to keep going. The last treatment she had was something called TACE I think. It took her a long time to come back from that. Her most recent assessment shows that the tumour has not grown at all. We all hope and pray that her ordeal will be over soon, and that she will recover.

Your Hub is sobering, to think of all the amazing people who have been cut down in the prime of their lives. So much more research is needed. Thank you for spotlighting this dreadful disease.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Vicky, I am so happy to hear of someone who is still alive 5 years out from their diagnosis. I did not get inot specific chemo for this article, so I will have to read about TACE. I agree about the research. Thank you for sharing your experience and your other comments.


Vickiw 3 years ago

Pamela, the extraordinary thing is that at no time has she lost weight, in fact she has always looked normal to the point it is hard to believe how ill she is. Her husband has documented all of her treatment, and been with her as she suffers through this awful journey. The last treatment was the worst. It is experimental, and only used on stage 4 I believe. Now she is back, socialising with friends, fund raising, and enjoying life to all intents and purposes. It is amazing.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Vicki, That is amaaing and I am so surpirsed she did not lose weight as I though that was one of the major signs. I hope the experimental drug is the cute. Thanks for letting me know all the details.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Hi Pamela, such a horrible disease and something we don't tend to think about a lot, I never knew about the symptoms before, so this is really detailed and will help anybody who needs to know, nell


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Nell Rose, I really wanted people to know there are a few early symptoms that seem to be easily ignored. Thanks for your comments.


Vellur profile image

Vellur 3 years ago from Dubai

A great hub, informative and useful. Pancreatic cancer is a terrible thing to undergo and it is so sad that there is no cure for this disease. Thank you for sharing this hub. Great write and voted up.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

Very good article Pamela. Hopefully in the future they will continue to seek out effective therapies to battle not only this type of cancer, but all of them. It is an ugly disease.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Vellur, I agree that it is sad that there is not cure for this awful disease. I appreciate you comment.s


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

Peggy, I wish they had cures for all cancers also. The only one that they can almost always cure is prostate cancer because it is much slower to develop than most cancers. Thanks for your commetns.


CraftytotheCore profile image

CraftytotheCore 3 years ago

My grandfather is dying from pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed two years ago when he turned as yellow as sunshine. His leg hurt. He was admitted to the hospital and they detected the cancer. They put a stent in. He felt better soon afterward. I got sick for a while and he was able to help us out a lot. Just within the past three weeks he took a turn for the worst. Hospice is now involved. He is in a lot of pain but they are keeping him on pain medication and will ultimately put him on morphene. It makes me sad to know that this strong man who was able to help us through my illnesses when we needed him most has lost 50 pounds and is suffering so much. It's a nasty disease. There was no family history. He was always thin. He doesn't fit the profile of someone at risk. It's interesting that researchers are now looking into DNA when there is no family history.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 3 years ago from United States Author

CraftyCore, I have seen people suffer from these disease without a family hx. and no hx. of alcoholism either. It is an awful disease and I am so sorry to hear your grandfather is suffering so much. I appreciate you sharing your experience.

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