November 21 is World Pancreatic Cancer Day

With a five-year survival rate in the single digits - and less than one percent survival rate for ten or more years in England and Wales - pancreatic cancer is one of the world’s deadliest cancers. The time is now to join in raising awareness across the world.

The World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition brings together more than 80 organisations from over 30 countries and six continents to raise awareness and inspire action. Through this combined effort, we can bring greater attention, awareness and better outcomes to this deadly disease.

The numbers (UK)

  • Almost 10,000 new cases a year
  • Over 9,000 deaths from pancreatic cancer, 2015-2017
  • 37% of cases are preventable.

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine, with two main functions: digestion and blood sugar regulation. Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow out of control and form a tumour. More than 95% of pancreatic cancers are classified as exocrine tumours, which start in the exocrine cells that make pancreatic enzymes that help in digestion. Within this category, the vast majority of tumours are adenocarcinomas.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (pancreatic NETs or PNETs) account for less than 5% of all pancreatic tumours; they may be benign or malignant and tend to grow slower than exocrine tumours.

Symptoms and risks

Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms in the early stages, which can make it harder to diagnose early. Symptoms can also be vague and may come and go, while the severity can also vary for each person.

You may or may not have any or all of these symptoms. It’s important to remember that symptoms can be caused by more common things. They can also be caused by conditions such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver):

  • Abdominal and mid-back pain
  • Feeling sick
  • Fever and shivering
  • Indigestion
  • Blood clots
  • Itching
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Change in stool
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Digestive problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mood change.

The cause of the majority of pancreatic cancer cases is unknown, but research studies have identified the following risk factors that may increase the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Inherited genetic mutations: disorders being studied for connections to pancreatic cancer include BRCA mutation, cystic fibrosis, familial adenomatous polyposis, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma, Lynch syndrome, hereditary pancreatitis, PALB2 mutation and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer: if a person has two or more first-degree relatives (mother, father, sibling or child) who have had pancreatic cancer, or a first-degree relative who developed pancreatic cancer before the age of 50, you may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Family history of other cancers: risk of pancreatic cancer increases if there is a history of familial ovarian, breast, or colon cancer, hereditary pancreatitis or familial melanoma.
  • Diabetes: pancreatic cancer is more likely to occur in people who have long-standing diabetes (more than five years). This can also be a symptom.
  • Pancreatitis (chronic and hereditary): chronic pancreatitis indicates an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. It’s even higher in individuals with hereditary pancreatitis.
  • Smoking: people who smoke cigarettes are two times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than people who have never smoked.
  • Obesity: obese people have a 20 percent increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer when compared with people who are of normal weight.
  • Race (ethnicity): African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer when compared with individuals of Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian descent. In England it is more common in deprived areas, and white and black people than Asian people.
  • Age: the chances of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over the age of 60.
  • Diet: while more research is needed, a diet high in red and processed meats may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. A diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk.

All of thees symptoms and risk factors can have multiple other causes and the symptoms you are experiencing may well be a sign of something else. However, if you’ve regularly been experiencing one or more of these symptoms that are persistent, worsening, and not normal for you, do not ignore them, speak to your GP as soon as you can, and reference pancreatic cancer.

If pancreatic cancer is found early, it is more treatable so visiting your doctor could save your life.