Is Pancreatic Cancer Curable? Early Symptoms, Treatment, Outlook
Read on to learn if pancreatic cancer is curable. This article discusses the stages, how to detect it early on, treatment options, and more.
Pancreatic cancer can be challenging to detect in the early stages and difficult to treat.
However, due to medical advancements, if healthcare professionals can detect pancreatic cancer in the early stages, some cases may be curable.
Researchers are working hard to develop new treatment options and detection methods for people with pancreatic cancer.
The stages of cancer describe how far the cancer progresses and helps guide treatment plans.
Stage 0 is also known as carcinoma in situ. During this stage, atypical cells are present in the pancreas lining tissue, not other layers.
During stage 1, a tumor is present in the pancreas, but it does not extend to any other surrounding tissues or blood vessels.
Stage 2 is when the tumor spreads into the bile duct and other nearby tissues. However, there is no cancer in the lymph nodes.
Stage 3 is when cancer spreads into the local lymph nodes or blood vessels. This makes it easier for cancer to spread to other areas of the body, making it more difficult to treat.
Experts typically divide stage 4 cancer into stage 4A and stage 4B.
During stage 4A, cancer spreads to nearby organs, which may include the stomach, liver, and diaphragm.
In stage 4B, cancer spreads to distant organs of the body, such as the lungs or bones. This makes treating pancreatic cancer the most difficult.
The early stages of pancreatic cancer typically have no symptoms.
Therefore, having a good understanding of the risk factors of pancreatic cancer can help doctors identify people at a high risk of this cancer, as a 2021 research review explained. This allows them to undergo screening so that doctors can make early diagnoses.
The same review explained that some experts recommend screening for people at a high risk starting at ages 40–50 years old with endoscopic ultrasound. Then, repeating the screening every 3 years if the test is clear or every 3–6 months if abnormalities are present.
People at a high risk may have a family history of pancreatic cancer or an inherited genetic syndrome, such as Peutz-Jeghers.
Pancreatic cancer may also be more common in people experiencing:
If you have concerns, talk with your doctor about your risk factor level for pancreatic cancer.
Learn about diagnostic testing for pancreatic cancer.
Early in the condition, pancreatic cancer typically has no symptoms. When a person notices symptoms, the cancer is usually very large or outside the pancreas.
If you have any of the following symptoms, it does not necessarily mean you have pancreatic cancer. These symptoms relate to other conditions as well. However, it is a good idea to contact your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:
- yellowing of the skin and eyes
- dark urine
- light-colored or greasy stool
- itchy skin
- stomach or back pain
- loss of appetite with weight loss
- nausea and vomiting
- blood clots
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive and challenging cancers to treat.
Treatment options depend on the stage of the cancer, the overall health of the person with cancer, and what type of pancreatic cancer they have. Treatment may include options such as:
- Surgery: For some people, surgery may be an option that works toward curing pancreatic cancer by removing the cancer. For people who have widespread cancer that a surgeon cannot completely remove, surgery may help ease their symptoms.
- Ablation or embolization: The goal of these procedures is to destroy cancer tumors rather than remove them as with surgery. Different methods can focus on breaking down a tumor. This is not common treatment for pancreatic cancer but may work on tumors which spread to other areas of the body from the pancreas, such as a liver tumor.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high energy X-rays to eliminate cancer cells. Some pancreatic cancers benefit from this type of treatment.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves anticancer medications that people with cancer can take by mouth or by injection.
- Targeted therapy: Pancreatic cancer cells go through certain changes to grow. Targeted therapy targets these changes to try and eliminate cancer cells. They work differently than chemo and usually have fewer side effects.
- Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy uses medications to stimulate your immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. Certain types of immunotherapy help treat pancreatic cancer.
- Pain management: The cancer’s location often interferes with nerves in the back and abdomen, causing pain. Doctors have several methods, which may help relieve pain from pancreatic cancer, including prescribing pain relief medications.
It is important to remember that your treatment plan is specific for you. Talk with your doctor about your options and the side effects of each option. Base your decision on what you and your doctor think is best for you.
Read more detail about treatment options for pancreatic cancer.
When it comes to pancreatic cancer, the outlook varies, depending on the stage of the cancer at diagnosis. Because doctors typically do not detect the cancer until the later stages, treatment can be complicated. The 5-year survival rate for advanced pancreatic cancer is 3%.
If detection occurs during an early stage, the outlook is much more favorable and possibly even curable. The 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer that is still localized is 42%.
If you receive a difficult diagnosis, try to surround yourself with a solid support system of loved ones and establish an honest line of communication with a trusted healthcare team.
Read 15 things your oncologist wants you to know.
A relative survival rate shows how long someone with a specific condition may live after their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition.
For example, a 5-year relative survival rate of 70% means that 70 out of 100 people diagnosed with a condition are still living at least 5 years from the time of diagnosis.
It’s most important to remember that figures are estimates, and everyone is different. Talk with your doctor about your specific condition.
Learn more about the prognosis for pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is a difficult diagnosis. Doctors often have a difficult time detecting it because of the lack of symptoms in the early stages. At the time of discovery, the cancer is usually progressing and difficult to effectively treat.
If doctors find pancreatic cancer in the early stages, treatment options, such as surgery to remove the cancer followed by chemotherapy or radiation, may cure the cancer. However, when the cancer moves into other parts of the body, the cancer is not typically curable at that point.
But developing an awareness of the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer and knowing your risk level can help with prevention. If you are at a high risk of pancreatic cancer, talk with your doctor about early screening to check for possible cancer. The earlier the detection and treatment, the better the outcome.