Pancreatic cancer facts

The pancreas, located in the abdomen, has cells with endocrine (hormonal) and exocrine (digestive) functions;

Cancer cells can develop from both types of functional cells.Most pancreatic cancers are adenocarcinomas.Few patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have identifiable risk factors.

Pancreatic cancer is highly lethal because it grows and spreads rapidly and often is diagnosed in its late stages.

Genetic analysis has recently identified four pancreatic cancer subtypes — squamous, pancreatic progenitor, aberrantly differentiated endocrine exocrine (ADEX), and immunogenic.

Pancreatic cancer may be difficult to diagnose until late in its course. Symptoms and signs of pancreatic cancer in its late stage include weight loss and back pain. In some cases, painless jaundice may be a symptom of early pancreatic cancer that can be cured with surgery.

The only curative treatment is surgical removal of all cancer, occasionally removal of the entire pancreas, and a pancreatic transplant; however, few patients are eligible for a pancreatic transplant.

Chemotherapy after surgery can lower the chances of the cancer returning.Chemotherapy for metastatic pancreatic cancer can extend life and improve the quality of life, but it rarely cures the patient.Patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are encouraged to seek out clinical trials that will ultimately improve pancreatic cancer treatment.

Each year more than 50,000 people in the United States (and double this number in Europe) are now diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (adenocarcinoma). The prognosis is such that most of these people will have passed by the end of the first year. In the U.S., pancreatic cancer is 9th or 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer (depending on gender), but the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women.

The prognosis of pancreatic cancer (adenocarcinoma of the pancreas) is a very tough, though the survival rates have been incrementally improving particularly over the past ten to fifteen years. It is important to realize that each person is individual; each cancer is different. Statistics can only indicate what tends to happen in the aggregate, and not in the case of an individual person.


The median survival duration from the time of diagnosis until demise is arguably the worst of any of the cancers – certainly of the major cancers. The median survival for untreated advanced pancreatic cancer is about 3 1/2 months; with good treatment this increases to about eight months, though many will live much longer. We have encountered nine and eleven and twelve year survivors.

Perhaps it is a good place to discuss what the term median means. Simply put, the median is the time point that separates half of patients who live longer from the half who will live less. Thus, there are many patients who will live much longer than the median.

The American Cancer Society prognosis figures show that the stage at which pancreatic cancer is diagnosed is strongly correlated to survival; earlier obviously being better. But, the statistics are still pretty tough. The five year survival rate with good treatment is now considered to be about 8%. Again, it is imperative to understand that each person’s situation individual; each cancer is different. Statistics can only indicate what tends to happen in the aggregate, and not in the case of an individual person. Many people do better than average.


The prognosis for those who are able to have surgery is improved over those who are not able. Unfortunately, only about 15% of those individuals with pancreatic cancer will be found to be eligible for surgery – for most, the cancer will have been found to be too advanced. For example, patients with pancreatic cancer who received the Whipple surgical procedure in one study (from a very experienced Johns Hopkins team) were reported as having a 21% five-year survival rate, with a median survival of 15.5 months. In more recent studies this five-year median survival duration after surgery has been reported as high as twenty months.

The prognosis is also better for those whose pancreatic cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage. The median survival duration from diagnosis with chemotherapy medical treatment in locally advanced cancer of the pancreas has been reported as 6 to 12 months.

Patients with neuroendocrine tumors tend to have a much more favorable prognosis than, for example, those with adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. The natural history of neuroendocrine tumors, islet cell tumors, and carcinoid tumors tends to be very different than that of pancreatic adenocarcinoma. For example, the median survival duration from the time of diagnosis for patients with non-functioning metastatic islet cell tumors approaches five years.

  • In 2018 an estimated 55,440 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S., and over 44,330 will die from pancreatic cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer is the 3rd leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States surpassing breast cancer. It is expected to become the 2nd leading cause of cancer-related death in the US by the year 2020, surpassing colorectal cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers for which survival has not improved substantially over nearly 40 years.
  • Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. 91% of pancreatic cancer patients will die within five years of diagnosis – only 8% will survive more than five years. 74% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis.
  • Few risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer are defined. The risk for cigarette smokers is nearly twice that for those who have never smoked. Family history of pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis, alcohol use, obesity and diabetes are risk factors. Individuals with Lynch syndrome and certain other genetic syndromes, as well as BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers, are also at increased risk.
  • Pancreatic cancer may cause only vague symptoms that could indicate many different conditions within the abdomen or gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms include pain (usually abdominal or back pain), weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), loss of appetite, nausea, changes in stool, and diabetes.
  • Treatment options for pancreatic cancer: Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are treatment options that extend survival or relieve symptoms, but seldom produce a cure. Surgical removal of the tumor is possible in less than 20% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer because detection is often in late stages and has spread beyond the pancreas. Adjuvant treatment with chemotherapy (and sometimes radiation) may lower the risk of recurrence. For advanced disease, chemotherapy (sometimes along with a targeted therapy drug) may lengthen survival. Clinical trials are testing several new agents for their ability to improve survival.
  • Pancreatic cancer is a leading cause of cancer death largely because there are no detection tools to diagnose the disease in its early stages when surgical removal of the tumor is still possible.

*Source for statistics: American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts & Figures 2018


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