Pancreatic Cancer Remains a Health Care Challenge

Kevin P. Charpentier, MD, FACS

Pancreatic cancer is relatively uncommon – it affects 12 out of every 100,000 people in the United States. The bad news, however, is that it is on the rise.

Data from the National Cancer Institute estimates that there were more than 53,000 new cases diagnosed in 2016.  And while it is not the most common type of cancer, it accounts for nearly seven percent of all cancer related deaths in the country.

That is exactly why we are focusing on research aimed at both earlier diagnosis and improved outcomes with treatment. The Brown University Oncology Group is also actively involved in pancreas cancer research.

The signs

Like most cancers, the earlier it is identified, the better the chance of survival. Signs of pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored stools
  • Excessive itching without a rash. 

These symptoms may also be associated with a new onset of diabetes in some cases; however, it must be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of new cases of diabetes are not related to pancreatic cancer. 

People with a family history of pancreatic cancer may be at higher risk for developing the disease.  We now know that 15 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer run in families.  If you have a first- or second-degree relative that was affected by pancreas cancer it is important that you share that information with your doctor as it may influence the way they monitor your health.   

If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer they may order blood work as well as a CT scan or MRI for further evaluation.  At the Lifespan Cancer Institute we have a dedicated team of national and international experts focused on the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer in our Upper Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Clinic.

When diagnosed early, pancreatic cancer can be treated and potentially cured. Unfortunately, 80 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have more advanced disease at the time of diagnosis. In these cases, treatment is focused on extending both length and quality of life. That is why the research underway now and future studies are so important in the diagnosis and treatment of this cancer.

Increasing awareness of pancreatic cancer is vital because identifying the signs early is key to treatment. However, there is hope, and we are working on that for our community.

If you have questions about pancreatic cancer, speak with your primary care provider.