Each year in Australia, more than 2,800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Sadly, most of those (about 80%) are metastatic or inoperable at the time of diagnosis. In WA, pancreatic cancer is the fourth highest cause of cancer related deaths.
So what is pancreatic cancer and is there anything you can do today to reduce your risk?
The pancreas is a long, irregular shaped gland that produces enzymes which break down food so that it can be absorbed and used by the body.
The pancreas contains two types of glands: exocrine glands which produce enzymes that help to break down food and endocrine glands which release hormones that control the amount of sugar in the blood.
Our Education and Research Director, Terry Slevin, said that we still don't know enough about pancreatic cancers.
"Frustratingly, little progress has been made in tackling this awful cancer. We know far too little about its causes, how to find the disease early or about successful treatment options," he said.
There are two main types of tumours that occur in the pancreas:
1. Exocrine tumours
Approximately 95% of exocrine tumours are adenocarcinomas, a type of malignant tumour which has formed in the lining of the pancreatic duct.
2. Neuroendocrine tumours (pancreatic NETs)
Neuroendocrine tumours are rare tumours that develop in cells of the neuroendocrine system. Pancreatic NETs begin in the endocrine cells. These cells produce hormones that control the growth of cells in the body.
How common is it?
In Australia, more than 2,500 people die from pancreatic cancer each year. The average age at diagnosis is 72.2 with more than 90% of pancreatic cancers being exocrine tumours.
"As we see progress being made in other common types of cancer, this form of the disease is becoming an increasingly prominent problem," Terry said.
What are the signs or symptoms?
In its early stages, pancreatic cancer rarely causes noticeable symptoms. Symptoms often only appear once the cancer is large enough to affect nearby organs, or has spread.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:
• Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
• Appetite loss
• Nausea and/or vomiting
• Unexplained weight loss
• Pain in the upper abdomen, side or back, which may cause you to wake up at night
• Changed bowel motions - including diarrhoea, severe constipation, or pale, foul-smelling stools that are difficult to flush away
Additional symptoms of pancreatic NETs include:
• Too much sugar in the blood (hyperglycaemia)
• A drop in blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)
• Blurred vision
• Excessive thirst
• Increased urination
Although these symptoms are not always an indicator of pancreatic cancer, it's best to consult with your doctor if something has changed for you.
Known causes of pancreatic cancer
• Age (it occurs mostly in people over the age of 65)
• Diabetes, particularly newly diagnosed diabetes
• A family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer
• Chronic pancreatitis
Lowering your risk
Not smoking or quitting smoking reduces your risk dramatically - smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.
What research are we doing on pancreatic cancer?
Since 2015, community donations have allowed us to provide $300,000 - ($400,000 total - $100,000 per annum for 2015-2018) to Associate Professor Oliver Rackham for his research in correcting gene expression in pancreatic cancer.
In 2016 we provided $100,000 to Professor Ruth Ganss at UWA to run a study called "Improving anti-cancer therapy by vascular targeting and remodelling" which focused on cancer of the brain and pancreas.
To find out more about the cancer research projects we're funding this year, visit our research page.
Make a donation
To improve survival rates of pancreatic cancer, further research is needed to find ways of detecting the disease earlier. To make a donation in support of pancreatic cancer research and West Aussies affected by pancreatic cancer, visit our make a donation page.
For support and information on cancer and cancer-related issues, call our cancer nurses on 13 11 20.