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Facts of Pancreatic Cancer

Updated on November 15, 2019
Pamela99 profile image

After 22 years as an RN, I now write about medical issues and new medical advances. Diet, exercise, treatment, and lifestyle are important.

Pancreas Behind Stomach


Pancreatic Cancer Facts

Approximately 55,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer annually in the U.S. and 432,242 died worldwide in 2018. The problem with this lethal malignant neoplasm is that it is often not diagnosed in time for a successful treatment plan. The five year survival rate from this cancer is only 9%.

The international mortality rate varies around the world. The highest rates are found in Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe. Then, Northern Europe and North America are equal. The lowest rates are found in Eastern Africa, South-Eastern Asia and Western Africa.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Alec Trebek are two well-known people that are battling pancreatic cancer. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with early stage cancer in 2009. She was diagnosed for the second time in March, 2019. Alex Trebek may step down as the Jeopardy host as he is getting sores in his mouth as a side effect to his treatment.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

There are only a few symptoms of this cancer in the early stages. When pancreatic cancer is found in the head of the pancreas the symptoms tend to appear sooner.

The following symptoms can appear with pancreatic cancer, but they are also found with other diseases.

Possible symptoms include:

  • Jaundice when this cancer blocks the bile duct
  • Upper abdominal pain radiating to the back
  • Bloating
  • Depression
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Blood-clots
  • Loss of appetite with unintended weight loss

Ruth Bader Gingsberg


Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

There are several possible factors that may increase your risk for this cancer.

  • Pancreatitis (chronic inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Age, as most people are diagnosed after age 65
  • Family history of genetic syndromes increase the risk of cancer risk (this includes “the BRCA2 gene mutation, the Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome”)

A bowel obstruction may occur if the cancer growth presses or grows into the small intestine so the flow of digested food from the stomach is blocked.

Recurrent pancreatitis is a painful inflammation of the pancreas, which may be acute or chronic. It causes damage to the pancreas due to the activation of the digestive enzymes that are released into the small intestine and ultimately attacks the pancreas.

The only ways to prevent pancreatic cancer is to stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight and eat a healthy diet with adequate amounts of grains, fruits and vegetables.

Pancreatic Cancer Survivor - Mayo Clinic

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

This cancer has the same stages as other cancers. Unfortunately, most people are not diagnosed until they are in stage three or four, and the prognosis is poor in most of these cases.

Pancreatic cancer stages include:

  1. Stage 0: The cancer hasn’t spread. The pancreatic cancer is limited to the very top layers of the cells in the ducts of the pancreas. It is not visible on imaging tests or even to the eye.
  2. Stage I: Local growth. Pancreatic cancer is limited to the pancreas and is less than 2 centimeters across or greater than 2 (stage 1A) but no more than 4 centimeters (stage IB).
  3. Stage II: Local spread. The pancreatic cancer has spread to 4 centimeters and is “either limited to the pancreas or there is local spread where the cancer has grown outside of the pancreas or has spread to nearby lymph nodes. It has not spread to distant sites.”
  4. Stage III: Wider spread. The tumor may have even expanded into nearby major blood vessels or nerves, but has not metastasized to distant sites.
  5. Stage IV: “Confirmed spread. Pancreatic cancer has spread to distant organs.”

Survival rates are impacted by the following factors: age, sex, the type of cancer, the stage at the time of diagnosis, the tumor size, the serum albumin level, treatment modalities, lifestyle, overall health and the availability of healthcare systems.

Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

Treatments for pancreatic cancer depend on several factors. In approximately one third of the cases the tumor spreads outside of the pancreas and wraps around arteries and veins. This makes surgery very difficult, but it is considered the only chance at long-term survival. New research from Mayo Clinic has found surgery is best done after a round of chemotherapy.

Surgery for pancreatic cancer removes all or part of the pancreas, which depends on the size of the tumor. Unfortunately, only 20% of patients are able to have surgery.

Other treatments include radiation therapy, which is given daily over a five to six week period of time. Stereotactic body radiation (SBRT) or Cyberknife is a newer type of radiation therapy that is often used. Another type of treatment is Proton beam therapy, which uses an external-beam radiation therapy that uses protons rather than x-rays. Proton beam therapy destroys cancer cells and it also limits the amount of exposed healthy tissue receiving radiation.

Chemotherapy may be given at the same time as radiation therapy is received and it enhances the radiation. The side effects from these therapies include fatigue, nausea, mild skin reactions, upset stomach and loose stools. The side effects do not tend to last following chemotherapy and radiation..

Chemotherapy is usually scheduled for a specific number of cycles. Patients may receive one or more of the following medications:

  • Capecitabine (Xeloda)
  • Erlotinib (Tarceva), a type of Targeted therapy (see below)
  • Fluorouracil (5-FU)
  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • Irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • Leucovorin (Wellcovorin)
  • Nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane)
  • Nanoliposomal irinotecan (Onivyde)
  • Oxaliplatin (Eloxatin)

Usually two of more drugs are given together, which means more side effects.

Other possible treatments include placing a stent in the bile duct to relieve jaundice, therefore it reduces itching and loss of appetite, which occurs with bile duct obstruction. Opioids are sometimes given to reduce pain. Anti-depressants are also given to treat depression that often occurs with this cancer.

Alex Trebek


Alex Trebek Chokes Up On Jeopardy!

Final Thoughts

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat as it is often diagnosed when a patient is in stages of three or four. There are very few early symptoms. Surgery is not always an option, but there are other treatments. Sadly, the prognosis is often poor, but research in ongoing. The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute each list clinical trials on their websites.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2019 Pamela Oglesby


Submit a Comment
  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Alyssa, I think this is one of the scariest cancers since it often does not get diagnosed. I now there is a lot of research into blood tests to detect cancer, so it would be good if there was a blood test for this particular one.

    I always appreciate your nice comments, Alyssa.

  • Alyssa Nichol profile image


    2 weeks ago from Ohio

    Wow! That's scary! Hopefully there will be more research into Pancreatic cancer to better help with diagnosis, treatments, and of course, a cure. I knew about Alex Trebec, my heart breaks for him. I didn't realize Ruth Bader Gingsberg was also diagnosed with this. Thank you for this informative article, my friend!

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Maria, I watch Jeopardy also, and I think a large number will cry if he passes away. Thank you for your nice remarks, as always.

    Love & hugs to you, Maria

  • marcoujor profile image

    Maria Jordan 

    2 weeks ago from Jeffersonville PA

    Dear Pamela,

    As usual, this article is filled with valuable information about pancreatic cancer, as well as state-of-the-art treatments.

    The video of Alex brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for always including the PERSONal element in your posts.



  • Robert Sacchi profile image

    Robert Sacchi 

    2 weeks ago

    Thank you for expanding on the situation.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Robert, It seems they are doing a little better with treatment but not with detection. Then, so many are already in stage 3 or 4 and then it is not treatable.

    I appreciate your comments, Robert.

  • Robert Sacchi profile image

    Robert Sacchi 

    2 weeks ago

    Thank you for posting. Are they making progress with the treatment or just progress with the detection?

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Linda, I am glad there are 2 well-known people that actually increased public awareness to this disease and the dangers to a late diagnosis, not that I wish this disease on anyone. I am glad there is ongoing research also.

    Thanks for your comments, Linda. Have a great week.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

    I wish there were better treatments for this disease. I'm glad that research is being done, but some people need help now. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Alex Trebek are inspiring examples of people with the disease. Thanks for sharing another very informative article, Pamela.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Audrey, I am sorry to hear about your son. Alex Trebek had one round of treatment, but I believe the cancer came back. He is in treatment again and I know that is rough. He seems to be such a nice man and I am a fan. I pray for cancer cures also.

    Thank you so much for your very nice comments.

  • vocalcoach profile image

    Audrey Hunt 

    3 weeks ago from Idyllwild Ca.

    I'm so very sorry to learn that TV host, Alex Trebek, has pancreatic cancer. This disease is just terrible and I constantly pray for cures for all cancer types. The "Big C" took my beloved son in 2006.

    Thank you for this informative article.

    Happy moments to you.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Lori, I feel te same way you do about Alex. I don't know if he is saved, but I hope so. I pray he will get a miracle also.

    I appreciate your comments, Lori, as always.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Peggy, Your story is the same as so many others and it is so sad. I hope they figure out a way to diagnosis earlier. If anyone has someone in their family that had this disease they should be checked out by a doctor regularly. Thanks for commenting, Peggy.

  • lambservant profile image

    Lori Colbo 

    3 weeks ago from Pacific Northwest

    You have done quite an extensive article. My heart breaks for Alex. He has been so brave but I heard an interview a while back during his first round that he would be on the floor in the wings writhing and screaming in pain, suck it up, and finish the game. I pray he finds peace with God before he goes, but I'm also praying for a miracle.

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 

    3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

    We lost a good friend to that type of cancer. Sad that the symptoms often appear when it is already too late for a good survival result.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Ruby, I love Jeopardy also and the championship weeks were great. I certainly understanding Alex becoming emotional as that was unexpected.

    I do not think I have written about celiac disease and would be glad to do so. My brother was diagnosed with this disease a few years ago, and he has some difficult still not eating gluten. There is a lot more gluten free foods available not then when he was diagnosed, but it is a problem and they are more expensive. He eats a lot of sausage and eggs I think. He even purchased special spices without gluten so he could make chile.

    I appreciate your comments ruby. Have a good weekend.

  • always exploring profile image

    Ruby Jean Richert 

    3 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

    It makes me sad when I think about possibly losing Alex. I love Jeopardy and am really into it right now, watching the man who has won $ 250.000 dollars. I was watching the show when the contestants wrote, ' We love you ' This is a well researched article. Thank you for sharing. I wonder if I might ask you to research ' Celiac Disease. I was just diagnosed. It is really difficult to omit gluten from the diet, but I'm doing it and feeling much better. The gluten-free food cost double, which I think is a rip-off. Thanks again.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Lorna, I agree that this is truly oe of the most devastating cancers. I know there is ongoing research but it doesn't seem like they have many answers at this time. I hope the future research changes that.

    Thank you so much for your nice comments.

  • Lorna Lamon profile image

    Lorna Lamon 

    3 weeks ago

    I feel this is one of the most devastating of the cancers as it is so hard to detect and difficult to treat. Your article is well written with detailed explanations which will be so helpful to people who have to deal with this form of cancer. More research is definitely needed.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Bill, I don't think that is silly at all. People that get these horrid diseases suffer in many ways. I hate cancer too.

    I am sorry to hear your long time best friend has this awful disease. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

    My best friend of 57 years is dying of this. He is down to his final few weeks, and I know it is silly to say, but I hate cancer. :(

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Linda, It is so nice that you met Alex. I think everyone loves him as he seems like such a wonderful man. I do think awareness has increased. I just wish they could diagnosis this cancer more quickly.

    I appreciate your comments and hope you have a nice weekend.

  • Carb Diva profile image

    Linda Lum 

    3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

    Thank you for taking the time to explain this disease. I met Alex a little over a year ago and, in addition to his warm heart and kindness he is incredibly funny. If any good comes of his illness it will be awareness. He's put a face to the disease.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Flourish, I hope the future is brighter for those suffering from that horrid disease. It is really tough for those patients.

    Thanks for commenting. Have a nice weekend.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    3 weeks ago from USA

    I’ve known someone with pancreatic cancer. Very difficult. You do a fine job of describing the illness, symptoms and treatment. I hope the future finds higher rates of survival.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Eric, Yes, you and Alex are good lights on the hill. I wish you the best of health and I pray for you each night. Carry on living each day fully, Eric. I always appreciate your comments.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Liz, I am glad you learned some new facts about this horrid disease. I hope they can find a way to diagnose this disease earlier. I appreciate your comments.

  • Pamela99 profile imageAUTHOR

    Pamela Oglesby 

    3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Hi Tory, Thank you for your comments.

  • Tory Peta profile image

    Tory Peta 

    3 weeks ago

    Thank you so much for sharing. Very thourough and well-written. Keep up the great work.

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    3 weeks ago from UK

    This is a detailed and interesting article. I have come across several cases which sadly proved to be terminal and I have learnt a lot about pancreatic cancer from your article.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    3 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    In that I am a survivor of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma with pancreatic involvement stage 4 I can speak to this. We somehow are chosen to be victims without our choice. But we can choose to be heroes, even if just for one day. The courage and strength to overcome is not our gift to give it is given us to carry forth to others.

    Carry on Alex he are the light on the hill.


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