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Patients Say These Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms are Ones to Watch For

Pancreatic survivor shares his journey and one sign in particular to be aware of. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

There's more than 100 different types of cancers and while many are treatable thanks to advances in medicine and technology, that typically isn't the case with pancreatic cancer. According to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, "Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. It is currently the 3rd leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States after lung and colon." The American Cancer Society,  "About 62,210 people (32,970 men and 29,240 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. About 49,830 people (25,970 men and 23,860 women) will die of pancreatic cancer."

One reason for the low survival rate is that pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early. James Farrell, MBChB, Director of the Yale Medicine Pancreatic Diseases Program tells us, "Unfortunately in its early stages it can be completely asymptomatic. Often when it is symptomatic, the presentation is very non specific with abdominal pain, weight loss, back pain, jaundice." Debashish Bose, MD PhD FACS, Director of Surgical Oncology, Director of the Center for Hepatobiliary Disease, Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore MD adds, "Pancreas cancer is difficult to diagnose because of the location of the pancreas in a space called the retroperitoneum, which makes it difficult to access. It also requires specialized imaging to detect tumors that can be missed on regular scans." He continues, "It is likely that most people who have pancreatic cancer are unaware of it for many months before it becomes apparent that anything is wrong."

The average 5-year survival rate is 11 percent for people with pancreatic cancer in the United States, but one man is proving that you can live longer and beat the fatal disease. "I'm a six year thriver (not just a survivor) of third stage pancreatic cancer," Chris Joseph, Owner of CAJA Environmental Services, LLC and author tells us. Joseph shares his story about how he overcame the odds and reveals one symptom in particular to watch out for. As always, please consult your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Pancreatic Cancer

Doctor examine an x-ray picture of pancreas

Dr. Bose tells us, "People should know that, unfortunately, pancreas cancer carries a very poor prognosis and is on the rise. The pancreas is a gland that makes digestive enzymes and hormones that control blood sugar and the activities of the digestive tract. Most pancreas cancer arises from cells that make up the lining of the tubes that conduct digestive juices into the intestine, called ducts. Because of its location, pancreas cancer does not usually cause symptoms until it is advanced.  

There is no screening tool for pancreatic cancer, like a colonoscopy or a mammogram. There are no good blood tests to screen for pancreatic cancer, like a PSA. For some people it is possible to perform surgery to remove pancreatic cancer, which is the only way to achieve "long" term survival, but under the best of circumstances people with pancreatic cancer live an average of 2-3 years after diagnosis, and only about 1 in 4 people who are able to undergo surgery survive to 5 years."


Depression and Pancreatic Cancer

Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problems

Joseph says, "I was diagnosed in October 2016. During the summer of 2016, I started having serious and deep depressive episodes. Which was odd, because my life was going really well. I actually was having suicidal thoughts.  I sought some help via a therapist, and that took some of the air out of the balloon. Researchers have made a connection between depression and pancreatic cancer, with depression being a warning sign that something is wrong in the body. That was the case for me."

There's been plenty of studies that link depression and pancreatic cancer, including a 2018 case study, "The prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) in pancreatic cancer (PC) has been reported up to 7 times higher than the general population. Despite repeated studies that show worse quality of life, survival outcomes, and treatment compliance in cancer patients with depression, baseline antidepressant use ranges from 15% to 27%."  Another study states, "Clinical Depression (Major Depressive Syndrome) occurs in up to 50% of patients with pancreatic cancer, and is significantly more common than in other cancers. Accumulating evidence suggests a potential role for endogenous cytokines, specifically interleukin-1 (IL-1), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) in the development of depression in the medically ill, including cancer patients. These same cytokines have been noted to be elevated in pancreas cancer patients." 


Other Symptoms to Be Aware Of

woman with upset stomach drinking tea

Joseph reveals, "Concurrently, about a month or so before I was diagnosed, I started having indigestion, which didn't go away. It was also worse at night, which was odd—but I thought maybe I had a virus and it was just lingering. Anything that lasts longer than a week should be checked out by a doctor.  I also lost about 10-15 pounds, which I thought was from working out more. It wasn't." 

Dr. Farrell explains, "Unexplained weight loss, back pain and jaundice are often typical signs, which although nonspecific can be related to pancreatic cancer." Dr. Bose adds, "Unexplained weight loss and the new onset of diabetes in someone who is not overweight and did not previously have a history of high blood sugar."


Modifiable Risk Factors

Doctor in white medical lab coat points ballpoint pen on anatomical model of human or animal pancreas

Joseph states, "Seventy percent of people die within one year of diagnosis. 90 percent are dead within five years. As I mentioned, I'm in year seven, and doing GREAT!  The thing for me was to take charge of my health care, quit chemotherapy, and embark on a journey of both western and non-western immunotherapy.  My journey isn't a fluke. But the problem is that our system is so wedded to "listening to your doctor" even with the understanding that doctors sometimes get it wrong. So people should know that they can VASTLY increase their odds by trying different treatments, eating healthier, exercising, having a spiritual practice, maybe doing yoga and meditation, getting outside and walking every day, and having great connections with loved ones.

Also I cut out refined sugar. The biggest test I have for anything I did is: 1) did it help reduce/eliminate my cancer, and 2) does it make me feel better.  With number 2, I have no doubt that I got healthier by cutting out processed foods and eliminating most processed sugars.  With regard to number one, the alternative cancer treatment world is filled with articles/scientific studies about the link between too much sugar and cancer.  The western medicine cancer world is a bit slower than that. 

Lastly, because I did so many things, it's hard to know if there was any ONE thing that actually worked. My feeling is that everything helped, once I stopped chemo. The western medicine immunotherapy was keytruda, which I did once every six weeks for a couple of years. The non-western medicine immunotherapy were lots of IV's (Vitamin C, Laetrile, Ozone, and other vitamin drips); dendritic stem cell therapy; mistletoe therapy (injections), and boatloads of supplements."

 Afsaneh Barzi, MD, PhD, medical oncologist at City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment organization says, "Like with other cancers, lack of physical activity increases the risk of cancer. Diets high in animal fats can also increase the risk of cancer. Therefore, a healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent cancer. Pancreatic cancer is associated with the development of diabetes in many patients. A new diagnosis of diabetes may be a sign of pancreatic cancer."

Dr. Farrell adds, "Modifiable risk factors include stopping smoking, limiting alcohol intake and losing weight. There is no currently available medication to prevent pancreatic cancer. other risk factors for pancreatic cancer include pancreatic cysts, family history of pancreatic cancer, inherited genetic mutations ( e.g. BRCA2) and new onset diabetes."


Pancreatic Cancer is Difficult to Diagnose Early On

Pancreatic cancer

Dr. Barzi tells us, "Pancreatic cancer is a rapidly progressive disease, and there is no screening method at this juncture to identify the disease early on. The majority of patients are diagnosed once symptoms arise. Therefore, it is likely that some patients live with pancreatic cancer for a while and then become symptomatic."

Dr. Farrell says, "Except for pancreatic cysts, the precursor lesions for pancreas cancer are difficult to imaging. Often the disease in its very early stages are asymptomatic and when symptoms do occur, not only are they nonspecific, but often related to advanced disease ( e.g. back pain, weight loss). There is no simple effective blood test for the general screening of the population. Current surveillance strategies typically focus on individuals who are a thigh risk of developing pancreatic cancer (pancreatic cysts, family history of pancreatic cancer, inherited genetic mutations ( e.g. BRCA2) and new onset diabetes). Imaging of the pancreas and confirmatory tissue diagnosis may also be challenging and require specialized endoscopic procedures such as endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) in addition to regular imaging with CT or MRI imaging."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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