November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, an important time to raise awareness of the disease. Read on to learn five facts about pancreatic cancer.
- How common is pancreatic cancer in Australia?
Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most diagnosed cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there was an estimated 4,534 newly diagnosed cases of pancreatic cancer and an estimated 3541 deaths due to the disease in 2022. In Australia, an average of 12.5% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survived 5 years from diagnosis.
- What is pancreatic cancer?
The pancreas has two main jobs in the body; to produce digestive juices that help break down food (its exocrine function), and to produce some of the body’s hormones such as insulin, which controls blood sugar levels (its endocrine function).
Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal (malignant) cells develop in any part of the pancreas, which may affect how the pancreas normally functions.
There are two main groups of pancreatic cancer:
- Exocrine tumours: These cancers start in the exocrine cells, and make up more than 95% of pancreatic cancers. The most common type is called adenocarcinoma, which begins in the cells lining the pancreatic duct.
- Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs): These are much less common, making up about 5% of pancreatic cancers. They start in the endocrine cells. If NETs produce extra hormones, they are called “functional tumours”, while those that don’t are called “non-functional tumours”.
- What are the risk factors?
It is not clear what causes pancreatic cancer, but we know of several things that increase your risk, including:
- Smoking tobacco
- Having obesity
- Having diabetes
- Age – Most cases occur in people over 60, and the average age of diagnosis is 71 years old
- Excessive alcohol use
- A family history of pancreatic, ovarian, or colon (bowel) cancer. Only about 1 in 10 people with pancreatic cancer have a family history of the disease
- Having long-term pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- What are the symptoms?
Early-stage pancreatic cancer usually does not show any signs or symptoms. Symptoms may only appear once the cancer becomes large enough to affect the nearby organs or has spread to other parts of the body. If symptoms do occur, they can include:
- Jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes, dark coloured urine, itchy skin)
- Pain in the abdomen that may radiate to the back. The pain is persistent, severe and comes in short bursts
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Pale and greasy (fatty) stools
- Changes in bowel habits (diarrhoea, constipation, or the feeling of incomplete emptying)
- Nausea and vomiting
- New onset of diabetes (10%-20% of people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes)
These symptoms can occur for other reasons and do not necessarily mean pancreatic cancer. But if you notice any of the above, it is important to see your doctor or healthcare provider just to be sure.
- Information and support for those affected
13 11 20: A free, confidential telephone information and support service run by Cancer Council. If you have a question about cancer, are affected by cancer, or to find out more about our range of support services in your local area call 13 11 20 to speak to one of our cancer nurses.
Understanding Pancreatic Cancer Booklet – Cancer Council
Your Guide to Best Cancer Care: Pancreatic Cancer – available in English and ten other languages