Australian Pancreatic Cancer Statistics
Pancreatic cancer is a relatively uncommon cancer, accounting for just over 2% of cancer[i] cases in Australia each year.
However, due to its asymptomatic nature, pancreatic cancer isn’t usually diagnosed until it has spread to other organs. This makes it a particularly difficult cancer to beat.
Mortality rates for pancreatic cancer are high. Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in Australia, with a 5 year survival rate of just 8.7%[i].
About the pancreas
The pancreas is a long, flat gland in the digestive system that sits in the abdomen. It’s joined to the small intestine by a series of ducts. The pancreas has two main functions: the first is to secrete enzymes into the small intestine that aid food digestion, and the second is to produce the hormone insulin which regulates the body’s blood sugar level.
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop in an uncontrolled way within the pancreas. This change can occur anywhere in the gland, but it most often occurs in the head of the pancreas.
Types of pancreatic cancer
This type of tumour accounts for the vast majority (up to 90%) of pancreatic tumours. They begin in the part of the pancreas that produces digestive enzymes. By far the most common type are adenocarcinomas – which begin in the cells that line the pancreatic duct. Around 9 out of 10 people with pancreatic cancer have this type of tumour.
Pancreatic Neuroendocrine tumours (PNETs)
Also called islet cell tumours, PNETs often grow slower than exocrine tumours. This group of tumours make up about 7% of all pancreatic tumours.
PNETs occur from the abnormal growth of the cells that make insulin. There are several sub-varieties that are classified by the hormones they make. These sub-varieties all have different symptoms, and behave differently as well.
What causes pancreatic cancer?
Research has found up to 2,000 genetic mutations that may play a role in pancreatic cancer’s development. This is part of the reason this type of cancer is so difficult to successfully treat.
That being said, it’s estimated that 5-10% of pancreatic cancers could be inherited through genetic mutations that increase susceptibility for this type of cancer. Inherited factors may include the BRCA2 gene, Hereditary Pancreatitis, Peutz-Jeghers Syndrome, Atypical Multiple Mole Melanoma, and Lynch Syndrome.
In addition to family history, some other risk factors have been identified to make some people more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than others. These include:
- Smoking (this can double a person’s pancreatic cancer risk)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Ageing (pancreatic cancer occurs mostly in people over 65 years old)
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer rarely causes symptoms, and those that do appear are often similar to many other less serious conditions. Due to this, pancreatic cancer is often not diagnosed until it is quite advanced.
Early signs can include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling nauseous
- Unexplained weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes)
- Changes in bowel habits including pale faeces
- Significant pain in the side or back
- Onset of diabetes and its symptoms (such as increased thirst and urination)
It’s important to remember that these symptoms don’t necessarily mean pancreatic cancer is present; they can be a sign of many other conditions. However, you should see a GP to have these symptoms investigated.
Pancreatic cancer treatment
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on your age and general health, as well as the size, location, and stage of the cancer. Your oncologist will work with you to create a treatment plan best suited for your prognosis.
Generally, treatment options include:
If the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the pancreas, it will be removed along with part of the pancreas itself, and sometimes part of the small bowel as well. Some of the bile ducts, gall bladder, and stomach may also be removed if deemed necessary.
This course of medication aims to stop cancer cells from growing and reproducing. Chemotherapy is often administered after surgery, but can also be used as a stand-alone treatment, or in combination with other therapies.
This form of treatment uses X-rays to target cancer cells and destroy them. Radiotherapy can be used in combination with chemotherapy when surgery isn’t a viable option.
If the cancer is blocking the bile duct, it can cause jaundice. Endoscopic surgery may relieve the pressure on the bile duct by inserting a small metal tube that keeps it open. Similar treatment may help keep other sections of the small intestine open if the cancer is pressing on them.
All treatments have side effects, which is why your oncologist carefully evaluates a number of factors while working on a treatment plan for you.
What to expect at your first appointment
At Hunter Valley Oncology, we understand that pancreatic cancer can be a frightening diagnosis. Our caring oncologists aim to give you the guidance and care you need all the way through your cancer journey.
After your GP has referred you to our Maitland or Newcastle cancer clinic, we’ll help you gain a clear understanding of your diagnosis and treatment options.
Your first consultation begins with a review of your medical history (including your immediate family), so it’s a good idea to bring some notes with you. Also, your oncologist will need a list of your current medications.
Once your cancer has been diagnosed and a treatment plan agreed upon, your treatment will begin at a centre that’s most convenient for you. Dr Paterson and Dr Zdenkowski treat patients at Maitland Private Hospital, Newcastle Private Hospital and Lake Macquarie Private Hospital in the Newcastle and Hunter region.