# November, 21, 2019

How to Lower Your Risk of Pancreatic Cancer

Nestled near the stomach, liver, and large intestine, the pancreas is part of your digestive system. Around 6 inches long, the organ helps your body digest food and process sugar. Cancer of the pancreas is relatively rare. However, due to the fact that there are few warning signs, it is one of the more deadly forms of the disease. In honor of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, we look at the risk factors, early symptoms, and diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Fast Facts

Pancreatic cancer accounts for around 3 percent of all cancer diagnoses every year. However, the disease causes 7 percent of all cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that, in 2019, over 56,000 people will be diagnosed and nearly 46,000 will die of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors.

According to the American Cancer Society, the average risk of developing pancreatic cancer is around 1 in 64. However, certain factors either raise or lower your risk.

You have no control over some of these risk factors. These include:

  • Age, as risk for pancreatic cancer is highest for people over 65
  • Race, with African Americans having a higher risk than other races
  • Gender, as men get pancreatic cancer at a slightly higher rate than women do
  • A family history of pancreatic cancer increases your risk, even though most people diagnosed do not have a family history
  • Certain inherited gene mutations increase your risk for all types of cancer

Healthy lifestyle changes decrease your risk of pancreatic cancer

There are also risk factors that you can control. These typically fall under the umbrella of lifestyle choices.

Controllable risk factors include:

  • Smoking doubles your risk
  • Obesity, defined as a BMI of 30 or higher, increases risk by 20 percent
  • Chronic pancreatitis that is caused by heavy alcohol and tobacco use
  • Type 2 diabetes, deemed “controllable” since diet and exercise help prevent the disease
  • Workplace exposure to chemicals used in metal working and dry cleaning

The most important things you can do to lower your risk of pancreatic cancer is not smoke and maintain a healthy weight. Lower your risk further by limiting alcohol consumption. This lowers your risk of developing chronic pancreatitis.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Early detection of any cancer is vital toward fighting it successfully. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer doesn’t have many early warning signs beyond unintended weight loss, which is common for most cancers. If you’ve lost weight without trying to, talk to your doctor to find out why.

Pancreatic cancer infographic

In addition to weight loss, the most common pancreatic cancer symptoms include:

  • Back and/or belly pain: If the tumor presses against or spreads to other organs, it may cause pain the abdominal area.
  • Decreased appetite: Many cancer patients have reduced appetite, which is one reason they may experience unintended weight loss.
  • Deep vein thrombosis: This is a blood clot in the large vein in your leg.
  • Enlarged liver or gallbladder: A tumor may block the bile duct, which in turn may cause the gallbladder or liver to become enlarged.
  • Jaundice: Caused by a buildup of bilirubin in your liver, jaundice typically causes the whites of your eyes and/or your skin to take on a yellow tinge. Jaundice symptoms also include itchy skin, dark urine, and light-colored or greasy stools.
  • Stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting: If the tumor presses against the stomach, food may not be able to pass through. This may cause pain, nausea, and/or vomiting, particularly after eating.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes (often called onset diabetes) as a result of pancreatic cancer is rare, but it can happen. This is because the cancer may inhibit the pancreas’ ability to process sugar.

Please note that, even if you have all of these signs, that does not mean you have cancer. Every one of them has much more common benign causes. However, you should still talk to your doctor to determine the cause and address your symptoms.

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

When you visit your doctor, he or she will ask about your symptoms. In particular, your doctor will want to know what they are and when they began. Your doctor should also ask about your risk factors, particularly whether you smoke, have a family history of pancreatic cancer, or a personal history of pancreatitis.

The physical exam will likely focus on the abdominal area. Your doctor is feeling for signs of a swollen liver or gallbladder. In addition, he or she will check your skin and eyes for signs of jaundice. Expect to answer questions about your bowel movements and urine as well.

If the physical exam and medical history questions do not rule out cancer, your doctor will likely order blood work. You should also expect a referral to a gastroenterologist and possibly further diagnostic tests. Typically, this means a CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound of the abdominal area. However, it may mean a more invasive screening called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, or ERCP.

What Is an ERCP?

An ERCP involves inserting an endoscope down the esophagus and into the stomach and duodenum of the small intestine. The endoscope is a lighted, flexible tube that allows the doctor to inject a dye that helps highlight the organs of your digestive system so they can be viewed on an x-ray.

Your doctor may suggest an ERCP to determine the cause of your symptoms, particularly abdominal pain and jaundice. The test helps find tumors, blockages in the pancreatic or bile ducts, infection, and more.

What Does Medicare Cover?

Part B covers numerous cancer screenings but their site doesn’t list every test Medicare covers. To find out whether Medicare covers tests ordered by your doctor, ask your provider. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, talk to your insurance company.

Our Find a Plan tool helps you compare Medicare plan options in your area. It’s easy to use and completely free. Just enter your location information, coverage start date, and hit Continue.


Donna Frederick

After retiring from a career as an executive travel counselor in 2006, Donna Frederick embarked on a second career as a licensed insurance agent. During that first year, many clients told Donna how overwhelmed they felt by Medicare, but that her assistance helped them finally understand the Medicare program. That experience inspired Donna to focus her efforts on educating her clients to ensure they fully understand their Medicare options. Today, Donna takes pride in providing outstanding customer service and going the extra mile to make sure each client knows all of their options and has a sound understanding of their Medicare plan, from costs to coverage and all points in between.

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Last Updated 12/21/2018