Preventing pancreatic cancer through screening
Pancreatic cancer is known to be especially lethal, as it has little to no symptoms in early stages and is often found late. Awareness about the disease has increased with the passing of celebrities such as Aretha Franklin and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. However, there is hope for this serious disease. Gastroenterologist Veeral Oza, MD, explained how screenings are helping to catch pancreatic cancer earlier.
How serious is pancreatic cancer?
The five-year survival rate among people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is 9.1%.
“Survival depends on the stage at which we make the diagnosis,” Dr. Oza said. “The earlier we make the diagnosis, the better the outcome. If the cancer is localized, meaning the tumor is not involving any other organs or any major blood vessels in the area and is just in one specific spot, then that five-year survival rate goes up to almost 40 to 42%, which is pretty high.”
Symptoms are subtle and often attributed to other problems. Common symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- New onset diabetes after age 50 when risk factors such as obesity and family history are not present
- Loose, fatty diarrhea
- Yellow skin or eyes
What screenings are available for pancreatic cancer?
If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, you can qualify for a screening using either an MRI study or an endoscopic ultrasound. EUS uses a scope that goes from the mouth into the stomach. It has an ultrasound tip, which is used to see the entire pancreas.
A new blood test has also shown promise in high-risk individuals, especially those who don’t qualify for EUS or MRI. However, this blood test is expensive and not currently covered by insurance.
If you don’t have a family history, but you have a history of other cancers such as breast, colon, parathyroid or thyroid cancer, then you may have a gene mutation that puts you at higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer.
“The most notable one that people tend to know about is the BRCA gene,” Dr. Oza said. “There are many different types of BRCA genes, but the most known ones are BRCA1 and BRCA2. So, even though you may not have a history of pancreatic cancer in your family, you may qualify for pancreatic cancer screening simply because of genetics.”
What else can be done to lower the risk of pancreatic cancer?
Dr. Oza said living a healthy lifestyle is important in the prevention of all cancers. Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables and exercise regularly. Don’t smoke and avoid alcohol as much as possible.
Improving care for pancreatic cancer
Prisma Health brings together multiple specialists to develop an individual treatment plan for patients with pancreatic cancer based on their unique needs. Our program has been designated by the National Pancreas Foundation as South Carolina’s first clinical center of excellence for pancreatic cancer.Learn More