Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., but medical experts say knowing the risk factors may provide hope.

There are 62,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer annually and about 49,000 deaths each year, with a five-year survival rate ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent, said Dr. Joseph B. Gallagher, medical director of the Endoscopy Center at Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg.

“The main reason it’s so deadly is because it’s a silent disease until the very late stages,” he said.

Detecting a growing tumor in the pancreas — which is located in the abdomen and aids in the body’s digestive process — is difficult due to its location “nestled” among other organs in the stomach, said Dr. Amer Zureikat, chief of surgical oncology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Adding to the difficulty in an early diagnoses, he said, the symptoms are not often intense in the onset of pancreatic cancer so the disease is typically in the advanced stage by the time it is detected.

Symptoms include sudden or unexplained weight loss; abdominal pain that radiates to your back; blood clots; change in stools; trouble digesting food; dark urine; itchy skin and jaundice and sudden onset of uncontrollable diabetes.

“Early detection of pancreatic cancer, like many forms of cancer, has a higher probability of successful treatment,” said Dr. Abdalla Sholi, director of medical oncology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, who advises individuals to pay attention to their bodies.

“Patients should always make their primary care doctors aware of any and all family medical history and advocate for themselves,” he said, adding that patients should ask about screenings if there is any type of cancer in the family history. “One rule of thumb is to start cancer screenings when you’re a decade younger than the age of an immediate family member who has been diagnosed. For example, if one of your parents received a cancer diagnosis at the age of 50, you would want to ask your doctor about that type of cancer’s screening by the age of 40.”

The specific cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown; however, knowing the risk factors can help.

Between 10 and 15 percent of all pancreatic cancers involve patients who have a pre-genetic condition, said Gallagher.

Besides knowing the family history, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and eating habits will help to lower the chances of a cancer diagnosis, said Zureikat who said the disease often strikes older men, but impacts women as well.

Experts like Zureikat and Dr. Heath Mackley, vice chair of radiation oncology at Geisinger, said outcomes for patients has improved in the past decade with a mix of therapeutic approaches, starting with chemotherapy and radiation prior to surgery.

In the 15 years since he’s been working in the field, Mackley said, he’s seen improvements in patient outcomes since medical professionals have begun with non-surgical treatment.

Following chemotherapy and radiation, he said, surgeons may be better able to remove a tumor that has been shrunken.

Zureikat said UPMC has pioneered a minimally invasive and robotically assisted surgery for pancreas cancer.

“Only a few centers in the United States offer this minimally invasive technique and I am proud to say that we perform more robotically assisted pancreatic surgery than any other surgical team in the country,” he said. “Our experts also participate and often lead clinical trials to develop more effective treatments for pancreatic cancer. We are not only helping to increase the survival rate for this cancer, but also the quality of life. While survival rates differ greatly depending on the age of the patient, stage, and location of the cancer, we have been able to increase the survival rate over the past decade and hope that we will continue to make improvements.”

For Mackley, the goal is not only to extend a patient’s life after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, but to provide “quality of life.”

“I don’t want to sugar coat it... we are looking at incremental improvements,” he said. “However, I would tell anyone facing a diagnosis, don’t lose hope.”

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