In the world of cancers, you don’t often hear much about cancers that affect the digestive system.
When Steve Jobs lost his battle with cancer last week, we began to hear much more about pancreatic cancer. The truth is, cancer can strike any part of the digestive system: the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, intestines, rectum and anus.
With increased attention on pancreatic cancer, many are beginning to wonder just what the pancreas is, and if they are at risk for getting pancreatic cancer.
The pancreas is a gland that lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine. Its role in the body is to produce juices that help digest food and hormones that help control blood sugar levels and help the body use and store energy from food.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when tumors begin to grow in the pancreas. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 44,030 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S. this year. The survival rate is relatively low—37,660 of them are estimated to die from the disease.
As we saw with Steve Jobs, pancreatic cancer can strike at any age, but most cases will occur in people over the age of 60. Other factors increase the likelihood you’ll develop the disease.
Cigarette smokers are two to three times more likely than nonsmokers, and it's more common in men than in women and in African-Americans than in any other ethnic group. People with diabetes also have a greater risk, as do those with a history of chronic pancreatitis, which is a chronic inflammation of the pancreas.
Finally, family history plays a role. Having an immediate family member with a history of pancreatic, colorectal or ovarian cancer increases your own chances of developing it.
With most cancers in general, early detection is crucial in fighting the disease. Pancreatic cancer, however, is particularly difficult to detect and diagnose because early on, there are usually no noticeable signs or symptoms.
Or the symptoms are similar to other illnesses and easy to overlook. As the disease progresses, however, they become more noticeable. Symptoms include pain in the middle or upper abdomen or back, yellowed skin and eyes (jaundice), weakness or fatigue, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and weight loss.
Individuals who experience these symptoms and suspect pancreatic cancer, or have a family history of pancreatic cancer, should first discuss it with their primary care physicians. They may be referred to a gastroenterologist who can perform tests and procedures to not only give a proper diagnosis, but to also determine the extent of the cancer.
This is important to know in creating a treatment plan. The chances for a cure increase dramatically if the cancer can be removed entirely by surgery. If there is no spread of the cancer beyond the pancreas or significant invasion of major blood vessels, surgical removal may be possible.
Worried about pancreatic cancer? Here are some tips you can take to lower your risk:
- If you smoke, quit.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Limit your consumption of pork, red meat and processed meat-such as lunch meat, sausage and bacon.
- Avoid cooking meats at high temperatures. Doing so can help reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals that are formed in high temperature cooking.
- Include at least five servings of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute at Franklin Square offers the latest advanced treatment technologies for pancreatic cancer and a variety of digestive disorders, delivered by a multidisciplinary team of experts in one convenient location. Learn more with a free Interventional Gastroenterology brochure. To request a copy, or for a physician referral, call 443-777-7900.