World Cancer Day: Five things you should know about pancreatic cancer

Ingy Deif, Friday 4 Feb 2022

Every year, 4 February is marked as World Cancer Day, highlighting the multifaceted disease and spreading awareness to the effect it has on patients and their families.


While medical care constitutes a big chunk of treating the disease, awareness is key to understand it more and to enable people to make right choices when it comes to lifestyle and early diagnosis.

In 2018, there were about 134,632 new cancer cases and 89,042 cancer-related deaths in Egypt. Liver and breast cancers are the most common in terms of incidence and mortality.

On the Occasion of World Cancer Day, Ahram Online tackles the latest release from renowned Mayo Clinic that sheds light on five things everyone should know about one rare – yet deadly type of cancer: Pancreatic cancer.

According to the American National Cancer Institute, while pancreatic cancer accounts for 3.2 percent of all new cancer cases, it is the cause of nearly 8 percent of cancer deaths.

According to the latest World Health Organisation data published in 2018, pancreatic cancer deaths in Egypt reached 2,523, or 0.45% of total deaths. The death rate is 3.82 per 100,000 people, ranking Egypt 87th in the world for pancreatic cancer-related deaths.

Here are five things you should know about pancreatic cancer:

1) Pancreatic cancer is aggressive, and the symptoms are not specific.

In fifty percent of patients, when pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, it has already spread to other organs and is stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer.

This happens for two reasons: First, pancreatic cancer cells are particularly aggressive, they stick together and form tumors and spread to neighbouring organs very quickly. Second, this type of cancer has no symptoms before it spreads outside the pancreas, and when it does cause symptoms, they are nonspecific.

For example, patient may experience abdominal pain, back pain, or weight loss, all of which could most likely be due to other causes.

Only when really specific things like jaundice, lighter-colored stools, darker urine, or a new onset of diabetes, are detected do doctors associate the symptoms with pancreatic cancer.

2) Diagnosis is a process that involves many steps.

When a doctor suspects that a patient might have pancreatic cancer, the first step is to do imaging tests to visualise the internal organs (CT).

If the radiologist confirms a mass in the pancreas, then there is a 90% probability that it is pancreatic cancer.

If for some reason a CT scan is not possible or inconclusive, an MRI may be used. If imaging tests confirm a strong possibility of pancreatic cancer, the next step is a blood test.

A final diagnosis requires a biopsy. Nothing is considered cancerous until it is proven through a biopsy.

3) The cause of most types of pancreatic cancer is not clear.

Although the cause of pancreatic cancer is not clear, doctors have identified some factors that may increase risk of getting it, including smoking, diabetes, chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), obesity, and family history.

About 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are hereditary.

Research has also shown that the combination of smoking, long-term diabetes, and a poor diet increases the risk of pancreatic cancer far above the risk that each of these factors poses on its own.

4) There is no good way to screen for pancreatic cancer.

Doctors still don’t have an effective way to screen large populations for pancreatic cancer. There is no good screening test that is cheap, effective, safe, and implementable like a Pap test, mammogram, or colonoscopy.

For people who have a first-degree relative with pancreatic cancer, especially when they have two first-degree relatives with pancreatic cancer, MRI screening every year is recommended and an endoscopic ultrasound every three years.

5) Chemotherapy is the main treatment for patients in whom, at the time of diagnosis, pancreatic cancer has already spread to other organs.

Patients whose cancer remains confined to the pancreas may also be candidates for radiation therapy or surgery.

Furthermore, patients who undergo surgery to remove tumors can live significantly longer than patients who do not, but if surgery is performed and some cancer cells remain or the patient has complications and cannot tolerate chemotherapy, there is no benefit to it.

Sometimes treatment before surgery, using a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be provided.

It has been proven that patients of pancreatic cancer can survive four to six years with this combination of treatments.

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