Shining the Light on Pancreatic Cancer

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Published on November 13, 2020

Shining the Light on Pancreatic Cancer

Illustration of a purple ribbon with caption reading "Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month"The passing of public figures brings awareness to the disease.

This year key United States leaders like the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and civil rights leader John Lewis lost their lives to pancreatic cancer. Most recently, the legendary host of the game show Jeopardy, Alex Trebek also succumbed to the disease. All of these public figures fought their battles for a different length in time but no doubt raised awareness of pancreatic cancer with others.

Unfortunately, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is very low – less than 10% – because most people aren’t diagnosed with pancreatic cancer until it has progressed to an advanced stage. Thankfully, there are new cancer treatments available that may help extend and improve quality of life, even in patients who have terminal cancers.

By the time pancreatic cancer symptoms typically appear, it is often too late to remove the tumor and improve a patient’s odds of survival. Although it is difficult to diagnose in its earliest stages, here is more information about symptoms, risk factors and what you can do to help prevent the disease.


Pancreatic cancer often causes no symptoms until it is at a more advanced stage, which is what makes it so difficult to treat. But there are some symptoms that may help you catch it earlier. These include:

  • Persistent pain in the abdomen or back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Light-colored stool or dark-colored urine
  • Newly diagnosed diabetes or existing diabetes that becomes more difficult to control
  • Itchy skin
  • Fatigue

Many of these symptoms can be attributed to other health conditions. See your doctor if you experience any unusual or persistent symptoms.

Risk Factors

Some risk factors for pancreatic cancer are under your control, while others are not. Risk factors include:

  • Smoking – smokers are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) – this may be made worse by smoking or heavy alcohol use
  • Being very overweight – this may increase your risk by 20%
  • Diabetes – especially type 2 diabetes
  • Family history – of pancreatic cancer or genetic mutations/syndromes that increase cancer risk
  • Age – most people are diagnosed after age 65

Although you can’t completely prevent pancreatic cancer, there are some things you can do to lower your risk. These include quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and following a healthy diet.


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Date Last Reviewed: November 10, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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