Pancreatic cancer: What you need to know

The American Cancer Society estimates that over 53,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Dr. George Van Buren, assistant professor of surgery and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, discusses risk factors, symptoms and treatment options.

Who’s at risk?

Although age and ethnicity can play a role in whether or not one is at risk for pancreatic cancer, Van Buren says the most common risk factors include the following:

  • Cigarette smoking

    Dr. George Van Buren
  • Family history – particularly a first-degree relative
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

Worsening diabetes in older patients can also potentially be a sign of pancreatic cancer.

“We are studying patients to see who could possibly develop pancreatic cancer based on their history of diabetes,” he said.

Common signs and symptoms

“Symptoms can be very nondescript, so patients unfortunately get misdiagnosed with acid reflux disease or gallbladder problems,” Van Buren said.

The most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Jaundice
  • Midepigastric (upper belly) pain
  • Rapid weight loss

Screening and treatment options

Those who have a high risk of developing pancreatic cancer may opt to have annual imaging and blood tests performed.

“There are no great screening tests yet, but we will do a yearly blood test for people who’ve had pancreatic cysts or a family history of pancreatic cancer,” he said.

Van Buren says surgery is the most effective treatment and is often done in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation. He notes there are minimally invasive procedures for those who may not be eligible for traditional surgery.

“Eighty percent of patients may not be eligible for surgery because the tumor has metastasized or is wrapped around a blood vessel,” he said. “However, some patients could be candidates for minimally invasive procedures such as laparoscopic or robotic surgery.”

Van Buren recommends that those who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer be treated by physicians at high-volume pancreas centers.

“We know that patients who come to high-volume pancreas centers have better outcomes,” he said.

Additional Resources

Schedule an appointment with a pancreatic cancer specialist at Baylor.

Read more about pancreatic cancer clinical trials at Baylor.

-By Nicole Blanton

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