Pancreatic cancer is relatively uncommon–it affects 12 out of every 100,000 people in the United States. Unfortunately, however, it is on the rise.

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. It produces enzymes to help digest food, as well as insulin to control blood sugar. As with all parts of the body, cancer cells can form in the tissue of the pancreas–this condition is called pancreatic cancer.

Data from the National Cancer Institute estimates that there were more than 64,000 new cases diagnosed in 2023. And while it is not the most common type of cancer, it accounts for more than eight percent of all cancer related deaths in the country.

That is exactly why we are focusing on research aimed at earlier diagnosis, prevention, and improving outcomes with better treatment. The Brown University Oncology Research Group is also actively involved in pancreatic cancer research.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms

Signs of pancreatic cancer may include:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • dark urine
  • light-colored stools
  • excessive itching without a rash 

These symptoms may also be associated with a new onset of diabetes in some cases; however, it must be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of new cases of diabetes are not related to pancreatic cancer. 

What causes pancreatic cancer?

People with a family history of pancreatic cancer may be at higher risk for developing the disease.  We now know that 15 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer run in families. If you have a first- or second-degree relative that was affected by pancreatic cancer, it is important that you share that information with your doctor as it may influence the way they monitor your health.   

Pancreatic cancer treatment

There are multiple treatment options for pancreatic cancer, which are personalized to each patient's case. Some of these options include:

  • surgery (sometimes laparoscopies) to remove the affected part of the pancreas
  • immunotherapy
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation
  • targeted therapies

What is the life expectancy for patients with pancreatic cancer? 

Like most cancers, the earlier it is identified, the better the chance of survival. When diagnosed early, pancreatic cancer can be treated and potentially cured–the five-year survival rate for localized pancreatic cancer (cancer that has not spread to other parts of the body) is 44 percent.

The biggest problem is that there is currently no screening tool for pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, 80 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have more advanced disease at the time of diagnosis–the five-year survival rate for metastasized pancreatic cancer is 3.2 percent. In these cases, treatment is focused on extending both length and quality of life. That is why current research and future studies are so important in the diagnosis and treatment of this cancer.

Pancreatic cancer research

The good news is that, thanks to advances in research and therapies, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is improving. The average five-year survival rate in 2015 was 11.4 percent–nearly double the five-year survival rate from 2005. In our practice at the Upper Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Clinic, part of the Lifespan Cancer Institute, we're able to provide patients with the most advanced procedures and new immunotherapy options through clinical trials. Among our many breakthroughs, our clinic is one of the first sites in the world to offer a personalized mRNA vaccine to prevent pancreatic cancer from recurring.

If you have questions about pancreatic cancer, speak with your primary care provider. If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, they may order blood work as well as a CT scan or MRI for further evaluation.  

Increasing awareness of pancreatic cancer is vital because identifying the signs early is key to treatment. We are working on new research and therapies to provide new hope for our community.

Alexander G. Raufi, MD

Alexander G. Raufi, MD

Dr. Alexander Raufi is a hematologist/oncologist at the Lifespan Cancer Institute, specializing in gastrointestinal oncology.