Why Is Pancreatic Cancer So Deadly? Here’s What Makes It One of the Most Dangerous Cancers You Can Get

Doctors are much better at finding and treating cancer than they used to be. Many common types of cancer, such as breast cancer, have high survival rates and allow individuals to go on living for years after treatment. That isn’t the case with all types of cancer, though.

Approximately 95% of people diagnosed with this type of cancer die from it. It’s the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. But what makes pancreatic cancer’s life expectancy so grim? Why do so many of the men and women who develop it never recover?

Pancreatic cancer stages: The later, the deadlier

Cancer

Cancer | KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images

As is the general rule with cancer, later stages are harder to treat, and you’re less likely to survive past five years if you have a more advanced stage. Health professionals don’t do routine screenings for this type of cancer like they do for breast or prostate cancer.

By the time most people start experiencing symptoms and receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, it’s already spread to other organs, making treatment much more challenging. A person’s likelihood of survival and how long they’ll live after diagnosis depends on multiple factors, including the size of the tumor and whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

How pancreatic cancer is diagnosed

If someone does start showing symptoms of the disease — such as jaundice or back pain — a doctor will order tests such as a CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI to get an as-clear-as-possible picture of the pancreas and other organs.

The earlier you catch and begin treating this type of cancer, the better. But that’s much easier said than done. Early stages usually don’t present symptoms, and tumors aren’t detectable during routine exams because of where the pancreas is located in the body.

Right now, the best doctors can do is perform tests on those who face the most risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Most of the time, this involves people who have a family history of pancreatic cancer or other types of cancer.

Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?

Smoking

Smoking | iStock.com/Pe3check

Every disease has two types of risk factors that make you more likely to develop it if they apply to you: those you can control — and those you can’t. Age, gender, race, and genetics are just a few examples of pancreatic cancer risk factors you can’t do anything about. But there are plenty more you can.

To lower your risk of pancreatic cancer, the first step for many adults is to stop smoking. Your diet and frequency of exercise also indirectly play a role in how likely you are to develop this type of cancer. Obesity increases a person’s risk by 20%.

There’s no guarantee that smoking cessation, losing weight, or maintaining a healthy weight will be 100% effective in preventing this or any type of cancer. But your risk does go down the more control you take of these risk factors.

Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die from it. Unless you’re at a specifically high risk, there aren’t many ways to catch the disease early. Taking care of your body by feeding it the best you can and exercising it as often as you can is the best way to lower your overall disease risk and (hopefully) extend your life.

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