National Cancer Awareness Day: How pancreas are vulnerable to this deadly disease, its causes, symptoms and why it is hard to detect

Exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known yet, though doctors suggest that factors like family history, chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, overweight, alcohol consumption, smoking might increase risk

Myupchar November 07, 2019 11:58:23 IST
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National Cancer Awareness Day: How pancreas are vulnerable to this deadly disease, its causes, symptoms and why it is hard to detect
  • Cancer of the pancreas is one of the most difficult to detect and treat because patients often do not get any symptoms until the disease is advanced

  • Exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known yet, though doctors suggest that factors like family history, chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, overweight, alcohol consumption, smoking might increase risk

  • India has a low incidence of pancreatic cancer, but lately, the number of patients has been rising

About the size of a six-inch sub (sandwich), the pancreas sits behind the stomach and pours insulin hormone and digestive enzymes into the blood and intestines, respectively. Cancer of the pancreas is one of the most difficult to detect and treat because patients often do not get any symptoms until the disease is advanced.

National Cancer Awareness Day How pancreas are vulnerable to this deadly disease its causes symptoms and why it is hard to detect

Representational image. Image by PDPics from Pixabay

According to the American Cancer Society, the one-year survival rate for all kinds of pancreatic cancer is just 20 percent. And only five percent of patients live for more than five years after diagnosis (earlier this year, former Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar died of pancreatic cancer).

India has observed 7 November as National Cancer Awareness Day since 2014. The idea, of course, is to raise cancer awareness in a bid to promote early diagnosis and treatment of the disease. In this spirit, let’s look at pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest form of cancer worldwide.

Understanding pancreatic cancer 

India has a low incidence of pancreatic cancer, but lately, the number of patients has been rising. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the number of pancreatic cancer cases has increased by a factor of 2.3 times between 1990 and 2017, according to the latest Global Burden of Disease Study 2017.

Published on 21 October 2019 in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, the study on the incidence of pancreatic cancer in 195 countries found that the number of cases had swelled from 195,000 in 1990 to 448,000 in 2017.

According to Reza Malekzadeh, lead author of the study, pancreatic cancer is one of the world's deadliest cancers, with five-year survival rate hovering around five percent, irrespective of whether a patient lives in a high-income country or the developing world.

An aggressive cancer

Pancreas helps you utilise sugar by producing insulin, and digest proteins by secreting several enzymes. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive kinds of cancer that starts to spread at a very early stage. On top of this, pancreatic cancer is extremely hard to detect and the death rate is extremely high (almost 98 percent).

Treatments like pancreatic resection, in which the diseased part of the pancreas is removed, have a five-year survival rate of only 20 percent, according to an article published in the Indian Journal of Surgery. However, few people even make it to the surgery stage. A large percentage of patients die before surgery, due to the rapid spread of cancer to other parts of the body.

A ray of hope

Pancreatic cancer is usually resistant to chemotherapy. Researchers say that one probable reason for this could be that the tumour destroys nearby blood vessels that are supposed to deliver the chemo drugs.

On 28 August, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania announced that they might have found a way to limit the spread of pancreatic cancer. Experimenting on mice and human cells in a dish, the researchers identified the molecular messaging system of cancer spread.

If the researchers happen to make a drug that blocks that specific messaging system, treating pancreatic cancer could become comparatively easy. The researchers are, however, yet to test this on the human body.

Causes and symptoms of pancreatic cancer

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known yet. Though doctors suggest that factors like a family history of the disease, long-standing pancreatic inflammation (chronic pancreatitis), diabetes, being overweight, alcohol consumption and smoking might increase the risk.

Some of the symptoms of this disease are:

  • Severe pain in the upper abdomen
  • Radiating pain in the back
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Depression
  • Sudden onset of diabetes
  • Blood clots
  • Fatigue
  • Yellowing skin (jaundice)

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please read our article on Pancreatic Cancer: Prognosis, Diagnosis and Treatment.

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