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Pancreatic Cancer: Life Expectancy & What to Expect

Pancreatic Cancer: Life Expectancy & What to Expect

Every year, over 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Of those who are diagnosed, more than three-quarters will die due to the disease. While modern medicine has made leaps and bounds towards alleviating or even curing many types of cancer, the outlook for pancreatic cancer patients has not greatly improved in the past four decades.

What is the Average Life Expectancy for a Person with Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer remains the third deadliest cancer in America, with as few as 8% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis, and 71% of those diagnosed given a life expectancy of less than one year to live. By 2030, pancreatic cancer is projected to be the #2 cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Once pancreatic cancer has spread to other organs, surrounding lymph nodes, or other parts of the body, the average life expectancy is just three to six months.

Why is Pancreatic Cancer so Deadly?

What makes pancreatic cancer so deadly is that, not only is it aggressive, but we know very little about it compared to other types of tumors. Many types of cancers now have exhaustive lists of risk well-understood factors. With pancreatic cancer, we can scarcely connect together more risk factors than family history and smoking. Additionally, diabetes, chronic pancreas inflammation, and a high-fat diet may also contribute.

How Long Does it Take for Pancreatic Cancer to Develop?

A recent study by a team of researchers from The Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine analyzed cancer cells from a small sampling of people who had died from pancreatic cancer that had spread to other areas of the body. After analyzing these mutations, the team estimated that it took roughly seven years for the original tumor to become sizable and about 10 years for that tumor to metastasize. These results lead scientists to believe that there is a wide window available for screening for pancreatic cancer.

What Are the Warning Signs of Pancreatic Cancer?

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include itching, weight loss, abdominal pain, and jaundice. Unfortunately, this vague list of symptoms may indicate a number of problems with the gastrointestinal tract or the abdomen, meaning doctors may pursue a dozen different diagnoses before considering pancreatic cancer. Worse still, these symptoms usually only appear in the later stages of the disease, when treatment options are far more limited and/or difficult.

The Importance of Early Detection: Survivors and Victims of Pancreatic Cancer

Recent research suggests pancreatic cancer doesn’t form overnight, as it so often seems. In fact, it may take as long as seven years to start forming a truly substantive tumor, and even longer for that tumor to spread to other organs. But without the help of early warnings signs through symptoms, and without an extensive list of risk factors, doctors have almost no opportunity to diagnose pancreatic cancer in its early stages.

Some people are fortunate to catch their pancreatic cancer early, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who survived thanks to a CT scan taken as part of a routine checkup. But because there is currently no non-invasive screening method for pancreatic cancer, most people will discover their cancer too late, giving them a grim prognosis, as was the tragic case with actor Patrick Swayze. While Swayze’s initial diagnosis gave him only months to live, he battled pancreatic cancer for 20 months before succumbing to the disease.

Apple founder Steve Jobs also battled pancreatic cancer, keeping his diagnosis secret for some time. Jobs had an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor, a rare form of the disease that accounts for 1% of total cases of pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed in 2003 and died in October 2011, shortly after stepping down as Apple’s CEO.

How is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer largely depend on your current state of health, and how much the cancer has grown and spread prior to being discovered. A pancreatic cancer prognosis is usually grim because the cancer went undetected until it had time to grow, meaning that surgery to remove the cancer is possible in as few as one out of five patients.

In many cases, patients may require a combination of radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery is even possible. When surgery can be done, doctors are required to remove part of the pancreas, as well as parts of any other affected areas. This type of surgery is called a pancreaticduodenectomy, more commonly referred to as Whipple surgery.

With this surgery, which can take as long as eight hours to perform, the doctor removes part of the pancreas, the gallbladder, parts of the stomach and small intestine. The surgeon then re-routes the remaining portion of the pancreas so that bile, enzymes, and contents of the stomach can empty into the small intestine for digestion.

Potential complications after Whipple surgery include abdominal infection due to leakage from the reconnected pancreas to the intestine. It can be managed with antibiotics, draining tubes, and feeding tubes. Although complications account for only 10% of patients who undergo Whipple surgery, most people who receive the Whipple surgery often need to take synthetic enzymes for the rest of their life to help aid the digestive process.

Patients who are unable to have surgery are usually are treated with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy to help prolong their lives by slowing down the cancer, but this treatment will not change their terminal diagnosis.

A Hopeful Future

There is no easy screening method for pancreatic cancer, and that costs thousands of lives every year. But armed with the recent discovery that pancreatic cancer takes many years to develop, it’s possible that researchers might discover a new type of screening in the future. Until then, we can only offer our hopes and prayers to those who must battle one of the deadliest cancers that science is yet to tame.    

Have you had a loved one who has dealt with pancreatic cancer? How did they discover it? What were their treatment options and how successful were they?