How to Prevent Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the more stubborn cancers to diagnose and treat. Early detection is rare, thus treatment is limited. Unfortunately, there are no medically backed methods of preventing pancreatic cancer.

Currently, there are no established guidelines for preventing pancreatic cancer. The recommended approach is to recognize and avoid pancreatic cancer risk factors whenever possible.

Cigarette smoking is the most important avoidable risk factor for pancreatic cancer. It is thought to be responsible for 20% to 30% of pancreatic cancers. Tobacco use also increases the risk of many other cancers such as those of the lungs, mouth, larynx (voice box), esophagus, kidney, bladder.

Maintaining a healthy weight, eating well, and exercising are also important ways to minimize risk. The American Cancer Society recommends choosing foods and beverages in amounts that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, as well as servings of whole grain foods from plant sources such as rice, breads, pasta, and cereals. Eat less processed and red meat. Following these recommendations may lower your risk of getting pancreatic cancer, as well as several other cancers and some non-cancerous diseases.

Pancreatic Cancer is One of The Most Challenging Cancers to Treat

Cancer of the pancreas is a particularly difficult form of cancer, because it is virtually asymptomatic in its earliest stages. The rapid and aggressive spread of pancreatic cancer into surrounding tissue, its resistance to standard chemotherapy and its tendency to recur make it one of the most challenging cancers to treat. Early detection is therefore most important, as surgical removal can only be successful if it has not spread far beyond the pancreas.

Treatment Options Depend on The Stage of Pancreatic Cancer

There are three main treatment types for non-endocrine pancreatic cancer; surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Besides chemotherapy, there are drugs that can be helpful in the management of symptoms, which is a critical part of pancreatic cancer treatment. The treatment strategy depends on the location and stage of the cancer when diagnosed, the
patient’s age, overall health and personal wishes.

The main system used to describe the stages of non-endocrine pancreatic cancer is the TNM system from the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC). The TNM system for staging contains 3 key pieces of information:

  • T describes the size of the primary tumor(s), measured in centimeters (cm), and whether the cancer has spread within the pancreas or to nearby organs.
  • N describes the spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes.
  • M indicates whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other organs of the body. The most common sites of pancreatic cancer spread are the liver, lungs, and the peritoneum – the space around the digestive organs.

After the T, N, and M indicators of the pancreatic cancer have been determined, the information is combined to assign a stage, which is expressed in Roman numerals I through IV follows.

Pancreatic cancers are also staged according to surgical potential

From a practical standpoint, doctors often use a simpler staging system, which divides pancreatic cancers into groups based on whether or not it is likely they can be surgically removed (resected):

  • A Resectable pancreatic cancer is one that is still completely confined within the pancreas or has spread only just beyond it, such that the surgeon can remove it entirely. Radiation may be used before or after surgery to reduce the size of the pancreatic tumor and destroy cancer cells that may have spread beyond the pancreas. Unfortunately, only about 20% of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed early enough to have resectable tumors. Even when surgery is possible, pancreatic resection is a difficult and demanding operation for both surgeons and patients. However, improvements in diagnosis, staging, surgical techniques and postoperative care are continously leading to better outcomes from this difficult surgery.
  • A Locally advanced (unresectable) pancreatic cancer tumor is one that has not yet spread to distant organs, but still cannot be completely removed with surgery. The most common reason for this is that the cancer has spread to nearby blood vessels. In such cases, surgery would only be performed to relieve symptoms or problems like a blocked bile duct or intestinal tract. Radiation combined with chemotherapy is the main treatment option for these pancreatic tumors.
  • A Metastatic (unresectable) pancreatic cancer is one that has spread to distant organs. Surgery may still be performed, but the goal would be to relieve symptoms, not to cure the cancer. Although chemotherapy may be used at any stage of pancreatic cancer, metastatic pancreatic cancer responds poorly to chemotherapy. Survival after the diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer is often less than one year. The main goal of treatment in people diagnosed with this type of cancer is therefore typically to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life with cancer.