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What is it?
Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive type of cancer and if diagnosed, the five-year survival rate is very low. Greater awareness of this type of cancer is needed to fund research and improve the prognosis for those diagnosed.
The pancreas is a gland that runs between the stomach and spine. It is about 13-15cm long and forms part of the digestive and endocrine systems. The pancreas has a dual function. Firstly, it helps with digestion (exocrine function) and secondly, it controls the amount of sugar in the blood (endocrine function).
As with other types of cancer, pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop. In this case, the cells develop in the pancreatic ducts and spread into the body of the pancreas, affecting how it works.2 More than 95% of pancreatic cancer is exocrine related.3
The pancreas consists of three sections; the head, body and tail. Cancer can develop in any of these sections but around 70% of pancreatic cancers originate in the head.3 The cancer may also spread to nerves, blood vessels and lymph nodes along with other parts of the body like the liver.
The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer can be challenging as it is known as a ‘silent disease’ and can remain undetected until later stages when other organs become affected.
In the early stages there may be no symptoms at all. As the disease progresses it may be accompanied by appetite loss, unexplained weight loss, nausea and/or vomiting, jaundice, indigestion, pain in the upper abdomen, side or back which may disrupt sleep and changed bowel motions.3
Unlike other types of cancers, there is currently no screening test available for pancreatic cancer.3
A diagnosis requires a number of tests that may include blood tests, a CT scan, endoscopic tests and biopsy. Together these tests will determine the type of pancreatic cancer, where it is located and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.3
As with other types of medical conditions, research shows evidence of certain risk factors that may make people more likely to develop this cancer.3 For instance, more than 80% of pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed in Australians over the age of 60, which shows that age can be a factor.3
Alongside age, an experience of pancreatitis, cysts in the pancreatic duct or a family history are other known risk factors.3 However, family history does not play a large role in this type of cancer as only around 1 in 10 people who develop pancreatic cancer have a faulty gene that may be inherited.3
In terms of lifestyle factors, cigarette smokers are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Type 2 diabetes, obesity and drinking too much alcohol may also increase the risk.3
Protect yourself: Minimise risk
It is important to understand whether you are at risk and to take steps to protect yourself. These may include:
• Changing your lifestyle;
• Investigating your family history – find out if any relatives have been previously diagnosed with pancreatic cancer;
• Raising any health concerns with your doctor as the longer it is left undetected the more difficult it is to treat; and
• Knowing your risk and considering whether you have adequate insurance (e.g. life, trauma, total & permanent disability, income protection) to protect what you value most in life.
This information is current as at November 2018. This article is intended to provide general information only and has been prepared without taking into account any particular person’s objectives, financial situation or needs (‘circumstances’). This information is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Before acting on such information, you should consider its appropriateness, taking into account your circumstances and obtain your own independent financial, legal or tax advice. You should read the relevant Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) before making any decision about a product. While all care has been taken to ensure the information is accurate and reliable, to the maximum extent the law permits, ClearView and its related bodies corporate, or each of their directors, officers, employees, contractors or agents, will not assume liability to any person for any error or omission in this material however caused, nor be responsible for any loss or damage suffered, sustained or incurred by any person who either does, or omits to do, anything in reliance on the information contained herein.