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Awareness and Prevention of a Silent Disease: Pancreatic Cancer

November 16, 2018

When Aretha Franklin, known as the “Queen of Soul” died earlier this year, musicians, politicians and fans alike mourned. OHBlog_Aretha_BoseWhile many had noticed her weight loss in her increasingly rare public appearances, it wasn’t until her death that we learned the cause of her illness: advanced pancreatic cancer.

While we may not know the details about Aretha’s particular circumstances, her illness and death raised questions about pancreatic cancer, which accounts for 3 percent of cancers in the United States, yet causes 7 percent of all deaths, and what can be done to minimize the risk of developing the disease.

About Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is a 4.7- to 7.1-inch organ, tucked behind the abdomen near the spine. It helps your body digest food and regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas begin to grow abnormally, forming tumors. The exocrine and endocrine cells can both form tumors. Neuroendocrine tumors, which Franklin had, are extremely rare, and make up just 5 percent of all pancreatic cancers.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect. Typical symptoms, such as abdominal or back pain, unexplained blood clots, weight loss, lack of appetite, and nausea and diarrhea, can be attributed to so many illnesses, which makes it challenging to narrow the symptoms down to the pancreas. In some cases, it’s not until the cancer begins to affect other organs (i.e. a person becomes jaundiced as cancer starts to affect the liver) that it is diagnosed.

Unfortunately, there is no general screening process available for pancreatic cancer as there is for breast cancer or colon cancer. Some genetic tests may be available for people who are at increased risk because of a family history of pancreatic or related cancers.

As with most cancers, the earlier pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, the more positive the outcome. Treatments may include chemotherapy, surgery, ablation (destroying the tumors), drug therapy and pain management medication, or a combination of these. Research into diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer continues with the goal of increasing options and survival rates.

Minimizing Risk Factors

As with most illnesses, multiple factors can increase the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer. Some of these factors can be minimized through lifestyle changes, such as:

Not smoking. If you smoke, stop, and if you don’t smoke, don’t start. According to the American Cancer Society, smokers double their chances of getting pancreatic cancer. Cigarette, cigar, pipe and smokeless tobacco all increase the risk.

Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and exercise. People who are obese are 20 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.

Reduce your exposure to workplace chemicals—chemicals used in dry cleaning and metal industries can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. If you work in an environment that uses those chemicals, use protective gear, i.e. mask, goggles, gloves.

Some risk factors cannot be altered, such as age, gender, race, family history and having diabetes. That makes minimizing the controllable ones even more essential.

Unfortunately, Aretha Franklin had multiple risk factors, including age, race, weight and a history of smoking.

Even as Aretha’s musical legacy lives on, perhaps she leaves an even greater legacy through an increased awareness of pancreatic cancer and ways we can change our lifestyle to minimize our own individual risks.

Understand Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer of the pancreas is a disease that is difficult to detect and treat, and it also may be challenging to understand at times. At the Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center Pancreatic Cancer Center we offer you every advantage available using the most advanced diagnostics, treatments, and research to help you understand your disease, its treatment, and your outlook.

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