The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are vague and often don't appear until the late stages of the disease. As a result, pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it's advanced, when it is harder to treat successfully.
Mass screening of healthy people with no symptoms would do more harm than good, says Anirban Maitra, M.B.B.S., professor of translational molecular pathology and scientific director of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at MD Anderson.
"If you screen everyone over age 50 for pancreatic cancer, you will end up creating a vast number of false positive results, causing anxiety and needless tests, all without meaningful results," Maitra says.
And, screening tests available are not good enough to find pancreatic cancers in their early stages anyway.
"We don't have good blood tests. Imaging tests are OK, but the smallest tumors, the ones we actually want to detect, are often missed," says Maitra.
If you are a healthy adult with no symptoms and no family history of pancreatic cancer, there is no screening exam to detect the disease. But knowing your risk, making healthy choices and learning how to spot symptoms can help you protect yourself.
Reduce your risk
Healthy individuals can get pancreatic cancer. But you can take steps to reduce your risk.
- Don't smoke. People who smoke are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer as non-smokers.
- Limit alcohol. Heavy drinking can lead to pancreatitis, or chronic inflammation of the pancreas. Long-term pancreatitis increases the risk for pancreatic cancer.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Someone with a BMI, or body mass index, of 30 or higher is considered obese.
Pancreatic cancer is rare, but it's on the rise. Maitra says the rising rate of obesity may be the cause.
If you have a family member with one of these diseases, it's critical they get tested so their close relatives can be alerted that they may be at risk.
Know your family history
"If you have a family member with one of these diseases, it's critical they get tested so their close relatives can be alerted that they may be at risk," says Maitra.
Once that risk is established, you can get tested to see if the gene mutation has been passed on to you. If it has, you might need to be screened for pancreatic cancer.
Know the symptoms
Pancreatic cancer symptoms can be vague, and resemble other health issues. One specific thing to look out for is a diagnosis of diabetes later in life.
Because the pancreas regulates glucose levels in the blood, diseases of the pancreas might affect your blood sugar. New onset diabetes, especially in an older person or someone who has a healthy weight or has lost weight, could be a sign that something is wrong.
Other symptoms include:
- Jaundice: This is yellowing of the eyes and skin. It might be subtle at first but can become very noticeable.
- Unexplained weight loss: Watch for weight loss unrelated to changes in your diet or exercise routine. This is because pancreatic cancer leads to muscle wasting, which is when your muscles become weak or shrink. You may also lose your appetite. Weight loss of 10 or more pounds that cannot be explained can be a sign of cancer.
- Pain: Many patients report stomach pain that radiates to their back, usually at night.
- Lack of energy and depression: The rate of depression among pancreatic cancer patients is higher than average.
It's important to talk to your physician if you have symptoms or a family history of pancreatic cancer or related cancers.
"With any of these symptoms, you need to get to a doctor, and they can at least order an imaging test," says Maitra.