Courtesy of Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen tucked behind the lowest part of the stomach that releases enzymes that aid in digestion and produces hormones that help manage blood sugar. Like other areas of the body, the pancreas can be affected by cancer. The physicians at Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative explain that pancreatic cancer seldom produces noticeable symptoms early on, making early detection at stages when it is most treatable, difficult. Most cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to other organs.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms. Individuals need to be in tune with their bodies to notice any unusual symptoms that may be indicative of pancreatic cancer.

  • A dull ache may radiate to the back from the upper abdomen that may come and go
  • A sense of fullness, bloating, or uncomfortable swelling in the abdomen after eating
  • Unexplained vomiting and nausea
  • Yellowing of eyes and skin due to blocked ducts that release bile into the intestine
  • Dark urine and light-colored stools due to blockages
  • Weight loss, malaise, loss of appetite, and elevated blood sugars

Prognosis. Five-year survival rates vary depending on the stage at which pancreatic cancer is diagnosed. The size and type of the tumor, lymph node involvement, and degree of metastasis also affect prognosis. Exocrine pancreatic cancers, and pancreatic adenocarcinomas in particular, represent more than 90 percent of diagnoses. Compared with many other cancers, pancreatic cancer has a combined five-year survival rate that is very low at just 5 to 10 percent. This is due to the late stage of a typical diagnosis. However, prognosis improves for tumors that are resectable (can be surgically removed) or can be treated by other means.

Risk factors. The presence of a risk factor does not mean an individual will get pancreatic cancer. However, proactive steps to recognize symptoms or undergo testing that may catch pancreatic cancer early are still a worthwhile protective measure. The American Cancer Society says the risk of getting pancreatic cancer is twice as high among people who smoke compared to those who never smoked. Being overweight or obese raises risk, as does having type 2 diabetes. Individuals with chronic pancreatitis, a long-term inflammation of the pancreas, are at elevated risk for pancreatic cancer. Men are slightly more likely than women to develop pancreatic cancer, and almost all patients are older than 45. Individuals also should speak to their doctors about inherited genes and family history of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is a serious disease. Knowing its risk factors and symptoms may increase the chances of early detection, and greatly affect prognosis.

Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative brings together 10 different providers and organizations to provide patients with the best possible care. Visit or call 716-884-3000 to make an appointment. For information on a local pancreatic cancer clinical trial, visit