Many people get scared at the mention of pancreatic cancer due to a low survival rate associated with it. In fact, two or three years ahead of patients being diagnosed, abnormalities have already surfaced in countless cases. This type of cancer is likely to be detected if you just watch out for two signs.
Pancreatic Cancer Has the Lowest Survival Rate of All Cancers
Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a “silent” disease, because its initial symptoms are hardly noticeable, which are vague and easily overlooked. By the time it comes into view, it is usually at an advanced stage.
Data shows the five-year relative survival for pancreatic cancer patients is only 11 percent, ranking last among the 22 cancer types surveyed, according to the American Cancer Society. A clinical observation of 625 patients suggests that the median overall survival for the cancer is only 9.3 months.
It was projected that pancreatic cancer would account for seven percent of all-cancer mortality in the United States in 2022, although with an incidence of only three percent of all cancers.
For every 59 people, one has the likelihood of suffering from pancreatic cancer throughout his or her lifetime.
Why Is Pancreatic Cancer So Deadly?
The pancreas is located in the upper abdomen of the human body, near the back of the stomach. As an important gland in the digestive system, it is responsible for secreting digestive juices that flow into the intestines to digest and decompose food.
It also secretes hormones, including insulin, and releases them into the bloodstream where they maintain blood sugar at a certain stable level.
There are four causes contributing to the high mortality of pancreatic cancer.
- Its pathological changes are hard to detect due to its location deep in the abdomen behind the peritoneum. Many patients do not feel anything abnormal until the cancer has already spread and affected other parts of their body.
- One of its features is early metastasis.
Pancreatic cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and the peritoneum, and cancer cells may also spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream. Fifty-two percent of patients are advised that their pancreatic cancer has spread elsewhere when diagnosed for the first time.
Those whose pancreatic cancer has not spread account for only 12 percent of the total patients despite their 44 percent of 5-year relative survival rate. Those with spread pancreatic cancer have only three percent of 5-year relative survival rate; they also face a high likelihood of metastasis in years following surgery even if they receive the procedure.
- Pancreatic cancer dramatically weakens patients. Consequently, they have a limited ability of withstanding treatment.
- Pancreatic cancer shows resistance to many therapies.
If diagnosed at an early stage, pancreatic cancer will have a higher probability of survival. A study published earlier in the American Journal of Gastroenterology suggested that even being diagnosed six months in advance could improve the chances of having a surgical removal.
2 Warning Signs Can Help Detect Pancreatic Cancer 3 Years in Advance
Researchers at the University of Oxford identified 23 symptoms associated with the most common types of pancreatic cancer by analyzing a large set of British medical data. These symptoms include yellowing of the skin, bleeding from the stomach or intestines, difficulty swallowing, diarrhea, changes in bowel habits, vomiting, indigestion, abdominal masses, abdominal pain, weight loss, constipation, steatorrhea (fatty stool), abdominal swelling, nausea, flatulence, heartburn, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, itching, back pain, thirst, and dark urine. Although most of the symptoms are not specific to pancreatic cancer, which may be caused by other benign diseases, patients with pancreatic cancer are more likely to develop some of those non-specific symptoms in the year prior to diagnosis than patients with other diseases.
Not long ago, researchers from the University of Surrey and the University of Oxford analyzed data from 8,777 pancreatic cancer patients and compared them to a control group population of nearly 35,000 through collaboration. They identified two critical changes in physical indicators associated with the cancer: weight loss and elevated blood sugar.
Findings show that the two signs are likely to emerge two to three years prior to diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
1. Dramatic Weight loss
Specifically, two years prior to being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one obvious change in a patient’s body may have occurred—a dramatic loss of weight.
At the time of diagnosis, the average body mass index (BMI, i.e., weight divided by height squared) of the patient was only 25.7 while that of the general population was 28.4, with a gap of three units.
Further research revealed that if one’s weight drops so much that his BMI is five units lower than that of an average person, one will face a 60 percent higher risk of catching pancreatic cancer.
So, be on high alert if you experience a rapid weight loss, which perhaps signals pancreatic cancer.
2. Elevated Blood Sugar
If your blood sugar level rises, you need to pay attention to whether you have diabetes, and more importantly, whether you have cancer in the pancreas.
Compared to the general population, patients with pancreatic cancer have higher levels of glycosylated hemoglobin, or blood glucose, with an average of 55 mmol/mol, while that of the control group is only 48.5 mmol/mol, a drop of 6.5 units.
It is noteworthy that an elevated blood glucose level as a warning sign can be detected three years before the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
If a person’s blood sugar rises by 10 mmol/mol, his risk of developing pancreatic cancer mounts by 40 percent.
Findings also show that a person without diabetes who develops high blood sugar is more likely to have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than someone with diabetes; and that a diabetic who loses weight means he or she also has a higher risk of developing the cancer.
Why Do Weight and Blood Sugar Abnormalities Foretell Pancreatic Cancer?
Exact causes of pancreatic cancer remain unknown. However, a host of risk factors are believed to relate to the development of pancreatic cancer.
Family history, genetics, and the like are considered to be non-intervenable factors responsible for pancreatic cancer. Another special factor that cannot be modified is blood type O, which carries the lowest risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
A 2020 review published in The Lancet suggested that, among a variety of carcinogenic agents for pancreatic cancer, controllable and intervenable risk factors include obesity, type 2 diabetes, and the use of tobacco. There is a consensus that smoking drives up the risk of almost all cancers.
A large cohort study of more than 560,000 Americans showed that people who were overweight or obese had a 15 to 53 percent higher likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer than those with normal weight.
French researchers analyzed human pancreatic tissues that had been obtained through surgery, demonstrating that fatty infiltration can lead to the development of intraepithelial neoplasia of the pancreas, which is a precursor to pancreatic cancer.
Another study holds that there is a two-way causal relationship between diabetes and pancreatic cancer. Findings also show patients recently diagnosed with diabetes have a nearly seven-fold increased risk of pancreatic cancer compared to those without diabetes.
A multi-ethnic cohort study also showed that patients with pancreatic cancer often have clinical manifestations of diabetes; and that long-term diabetes, in turn, pushes up the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Some researchers have explained why symptoms of hyperglycemia due to obesity and insulin resistance may lead to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer: high levels of insulin in the blood can promote the proliferation of pancreatic acinar and ductal cells. In addition, inflammation due to insulin resistance can also raise the risk of pancreatic cancer.
A 2019 paper published in Cell Metabolism proposed that a series of metabolic changes caused by hyperglycemia can leave pancreatic cells lacking a certain raw material needed for DNA repair synthesis, which leads to mutations in the KRAS gene in pancreatic cells, thus triggering pancreatic cancer. It added that KRAS gene mutations are related to 90 percent of pancreatic cancer cases.
Tips for Pancreatic Cancer Prevention
People can get started by changing controllable risk factors to prevent pancreatic cancer.
Particularly, for example, eating more plant-based foods.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods reduces the risk of pancreatic cancer while that rich in meat and other products of animal origin increases such risk.
Specifically, intake of red meat and meat products that have been processed at high temperatures may predispose people to pancreatic cancer. This is because such foods may contain advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which accumulate in body tissues and accelerate oxidative stress and inflammation, thus leading to disease and cancer.
Nutrients in fruits and vegetables, especially water-soluble vitamins and active substances, have antioxidant and anticancer properties. High dietary fiber intake, too, is associated with a lower risk of pancreatic cancer. In particular, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage contain isothiocyanates that may help fight cancer.
Compared to those who consume less cruciferous vegetables, people who consume more such produce have a 22 percent lower risk of pancreatic cancer.
In addition, a low-fat dietary intervention was shown to reduce the incidence of pancreatic cancer by 29 percent among overweight women, based on a randomized controlled trial of dietary modification conducted in nearly 50,000 middle-aged and elderly American women.
Such a diet also helps reduce obesity, which can contribute to multiple cancers, not just pancreatic cancer. Keeping your weight within normal limits can reduce the risk of up to 13 cancers.
Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol also need to be abandoned.
A controlled study of more than 530,000 Europeans confirmed that current smokers had a 72 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer compared to non-smokers; and that avoiding exposure to tobacco reduced pancreatic cancer by about 16 percent.
A meta-analysis found a 15 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer among high alcohol drinkers, and this effect was most noticeable among male high alcoholic and liquor drinkers.
Additionally, excessive alcohol intake is one of the leading causes of chronic pancreatitis, which is also thought to be a likely factor contributing to pancreatic cancer.