Pancreatic cancer is the UK’s fifth biggest cause of cancer death and one of the most difficult forms of cancer to treat, with Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub this month spotlighting the disease and underlining importance of early detection for survival and recovery.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, a campaign which brings together pancreatic cancer charities and groups into one united team demanding better for those affected by pancreatic cancer. Within the Month, World Pancreatic Cancer Day took place on Thursday 18 November 2021.
About 9,600 people are diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas in the UK each year. Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called the ‘silent killer’, because it often does not cause symptoms in the early stages and is one of the fastest spreading cancers.
There can also be difficulties around surgical treatment, and the disease receives just a fraction of total cancer funding. The survival rate, 2% after five years of diagnosis 40 years ago, has risen only slightly, to 7% today. Tragically, 80% of patients die within a year of diagnosis and less than 10% of patients can have surgery.
Despite the concerning statistics, pancreatic cancer can be cured but early intervention is absolutely imperative. This is why early diagnosis is even more so critical with this than other types of cancer. With no current screening test or early detection method, being aware of the symptoms and risks of pancreatic cancer (see below for more) and acting quickly on any persistent symptoms can make all the difference.
Public awareness across the UK of pancreatic cancer symptoms is incredibly low with 52% of people knowing almost nothing about the disease and 76% unable to name a single symptom. To this end, Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub encourages everyone to read the below overview of the illness.
ABOUT PANCREATIC CANCER: INCREASING YOUR AWARENESS COULD HELP SAVE LIVES
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system. It makes digestive juices and various hormones, including insulin.
Pancreatic cancer is caused by the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the pancreas. Around half of all new cases are diagnosed in people aged 75 or over. It’s uncommon in people under 40 years of age.
There can be different types of pancreatic cancer. The information included in this article relates to the most common type, known as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Other, rarer types of pancreatic cancer may be treated differently.
What are the Symptoms?
In the early stages, a tumour in the pancreas does not usually cause any symptoms, which can make it difficult to diagnose.
The first noticeable symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often pain in the upper part of the stomach area that sometimes spreads out into the back (this may come and go at first and is often worse when lying down or eating), unexpected weight loss and signs of jaundice such as yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.
Other possible symptoms include feeling sick and being sick, changes in bowel movements (diarrhoea or constipation), fever and shivering, indigestion and blood clots. The disease may also cause dark yellow or orange urine, pale-coloured poo and itchy skin. Individuals may also develop symptoms of diabetes if they have pancreatic cancer. This is because the tumour can stop the pancreas producing insulin as it normally would.
It’s important to remember that these symptoms can be caused by many different conditions and are not usually the result of cancer. However, it is equally important not to ignore it if you recognise a pattern similar to the above symptoms.
What Should I Do If I Suspect the Above Symptoms?
Make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible if you have any concerns in relation to the above signs or symptoms. Remember, the sooner you get checked out the better things will be, either in terms of putting your mind at rest or getting the right treatment.
A GP will first ask about your general health and carry out a physical examination. They may examine your stomach area for a lump and to see whether your liver is enlarged. They may also check your skin and eyes for signs of jaundice and may request a sample of your urine and a blood test.
If your GP suspects pancreatic cancer, you’ll usually be referred to a specialist consultant for further investigation. This may involve being referred for an ultrasound scan, a CT scan, an MRI scan or a PET scan or PET-CT scan. You may also have a biopsy, where a small sample is taken from a suspected tumour. Next steps and any further tests will be determined based on the results of these investigations.
If pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, treatment will depend on the type and location of the cancer and how far it’s advanced, also known as its stage. Your age, general health and personal preferences will also be taken into consideration.
Cancer of the pancreas can be difficult to treat. If the tumour is large or has spread to other areas in the body, treating the cancer will be more difficult. The three main treatment options for pancreatic cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
In most cases, the cause of the symptoms will be less serious things other than pancreatic cancer. But sometimes they can be a sign of pancreatic cancer. So it’s important that you don’t try to self-diagnose and to see a GP as soon as possible if you have any concerns.
What are the Causes of Pancreatic Cancer and How Can I Minimise My Risk?
It’s not fully understood what causes pancreatic cancer, but a number of risk factors for developing the condition have been identified.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include age (it mainly affects people aged 50 to 80), being very overweight, smoking (around 1 in 3 cases are associated with using cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco), and having a history of certain health conditions, such as diabetes, long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis) or certain types of stomach ulcers or infections.
As with most cancers, making some lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. Changes can include stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, being physically active, keeping to a healthy weight and following recommended alcohol guidelines.
In about 1 in 10 cases, pancreatic cancer is inherited. Certain genes also increase your chances of getting pancreatitis, which in turn increases your risk of developing cancer of the pancreas. If you have two or more close relatives who have had pancreatic cancer or you have an inherited disease, such as Lynch or Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, it is important to ask your doctor about regular check-ups as you may be at increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
Earlier this year, the charity Pancreatic Cancer Action Scotland teamed up with STV to show a pancreatic cancer symptoms advert which features Gavin Oattes, who sadly lost his father to the disease. Before his dad was diagnosed, Gavin had never heard of pancreatic cancer and didn’t know any of the symptoms.
Further detailed advice, information and support in relation to pancreatic cancer can be obtained by visiting Pancreatic Cancer Action Scotland online at www.pancanscot.org. The organisation can be contacted by telephone on 0141 213 8135 or via email at email@example.com.