Pancreatic Cancer 101: What African Americans Need To Know

3d render medical illustration of the gallblader and pancrease - side view

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. Smoking and health history can affect the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is a gland about 6 inches long that is shaped like a thin pear lying on its side. The wider end of the pancreas is called the head, the middle section is called the body, and the narrow end is called the tail. The pancreas lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

Celebrities such as Aretha Franklin, James Moody and Reverend James Bevel have all helped raise the awareness of pancreatic cancer in the Black community.

The survival rate of pancreatic cancer is dismal to begin with. Only 1 of 4 people with pancreatic cancer survive one year past diagnosis. Five years out, only 1 of every 20 are still alive. And, the black community is harder hit.

Black men and women are more likely to develop this relatively rare cancer than other groups, with black men having the worst survival rate (Surprisingly, for unknown reasons, the survival rate of black women is the same as white men and women).

The pancreas has two main jobs in the body:

  • To produce juices that help digest (break down) food.
  • To produce hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, that help control blood sugar levels. Both of these hormones help the body use and store the energy it gets from food.

The digestive juices are produced by exocrine pancreas cells and the hormones are produced by endocrine pancreas cells. About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells.

Possible signs of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect (find) and diagnose early.

Tests that examine the pancreas are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage pancreatic cancer. Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options. Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas.

Smoking and health history can affect the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include the following:

  • Smoking
  • Long-standing diabetes
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Certain hereditary conditions, such as hereditary pancreatitis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 syndrome, hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome), von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, and the familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM).
    Possible signs of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, pain, and weight loss.

These and other symptoms may be caused by pancreatic cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose for the following reasons:

There aren’t any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer.
The signs of pancreatic cancer, when present, are like the signs of many other illnesses.
The pancreas is hidden behind…