Jaundice is the most common sign of pancreatic cancer. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes caused by bilirubin which is building up in the body. Bilirubin is the green substance manufactured in the liver. Depending on where the cancer is in the pancreas, this may be a sign that shows up quite early when the cancer is still localized. Jaundice may be caused by a number of other diseases besides for pancreatic cancer so you need to see a doctor for a correct diagnosis.
Other signs include pain in the back or the abdomen, loss of appetite and/or loss of weight, problems digesting food, an enlarged gallbladder, blood clots or the unexpected onset of diabetes. None of these symptoms are exclusive to pancreatic cancer so it is very easy for it to be overlooked.
If you have one or more of these symptoms ask your doctor to perform one or more of the blood tests that are available to help diagnose pancreatic cancer. There are tumor markers CA 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigens (CEA) whose presence, especially at elevated levels may point to the presence of a pancreatic tumor.
Early detection is a problem with pancreatic cancer because it is usually asymptomatic. It has to be in quite an advanced stage before there are any discernible signs. Because the pancreas is location deep within the body, partially behind the stomach, it is nearly impossible for pancreatic cancer to be discovered in a routine physical exam. Only 10 percent of those who receive this diagnosis will survive for one year and only 5 percent will reach the five year mark. The survival rate is indicative of the fact that it is usually discovered only after it has spread to other organs.
There has been a lot of publicity recently about pancreatic cancer since it was announced that actor Patrick Swayze was suffering from the disease, it has since claimed his life. He is not the first celebrity to have received this diagnosis, Count Basie, Jack Benny and Michael Landon all succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
There is some good news, this form of cancer rarely strikes before the age of 50 and gets more prevalent with advancing age. The most common risk factor associated with pancreatic cancer is smoking. Smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers. The more you smoke the more likely you are to develop pancreatic cancer. About 10 percent of pancreatic cancer cases are thought to be the result of an inherited DNA factor. In these cases there is an early test which may prove to be helpful, it is an endoscopic ultrasound. It is not used commonly so a strong family history of pancreatic cancer must be indicated.
While the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is not necessarily a death sentence, it is very serious and treatment should begin immediately.
Once you have a diagnosis there are several treatment options available. Resection of the pancreas is one option, this is called a Whipple Procedure. If the tumor is smaller than 2mm. when it is removed the chance of 5 year survival is 20 percent. Radiation therapy is often used together with the surgical option or chemotherapy. A new study at the University of Michigan has shown promising results.
Chemotherapy has also been used as well with resection, it too is more palliative than a cure. It does not significantly increase the chances of survival. In advanced cases the main goal will be pain management and all the options need to be considered by the patient.
There are ongoing studies being done involving hormone therapy and immuno-therapy. There having been some promising results and the future at least holds some promise for a better prognosis for patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.