This November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month. Pancreatic cancer is not a cancer that we talk about much. It is not commonly seen in Nigeria, ranking at number 15 in cancer incidence. Pancreatic cancer accounts for approximately 1400 deaths per year in Nigeria, compared to 14,000 deaths from breast cancer. Yet the interesting thing to note is that according to WHO Globocan data, the number of deaths from pancreatic cancer (1454 deaths/year) is almost equal to the number of new cases (1477 cases/year). This highlights the other reason why pancreatic cancer is not often spoken about, unfortunately the outcome from this illness tends to be poor.

Pancreatic cancer is commonly diagnosed at an advanced stage with 50% of patients having cancer that has spread to other organs. This is because there tend to be no symptoms in the early stages of this illness and thereafter, symptoms can be very non-specific. Patients can present with fatigue, poor appetite, weight loss, and nausea. Jaundice is also a common presentation but by this time, the pancreatic cancer is likely to be at an advanced stage. If pancreatic cancer is caught at an early stage, the treatment options include surgery with or without chemotherapy or radiotherapy. In the advanced stages, however, chemotherapy is the only treatment option, provided the patient is fit enough to tolerate it.

Therefore, the best outcomes for pancreatic cancer lie in prevention and early detection. Choosing to follow a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Only 5% to 10% of people with pancreatic cancer will have a family history of this illness. Yet 20% – 25% of pancreatic cancers are caused by smoking. This risk of developing pancreatic cancer secondary to smoking reduces over time, so that a person who stopped smoking 20 years ago has the same pancreatic cancer risk as the average population. Similarly, a healthy diet and regular moderate exercise can help reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Diet can influence the risk of developing pancreatic cancer for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is a evidence that diets that are high in fat and red meat directly increase the risk of developing this cancer. Secondly, an unhealthy diet is more likely to lead to poor weight control and being overweight or obese is the cause of 10% of pancreatic cancers. Finally, the risk of type II diabetes increases with high fat and high sugar diets that lead to poor weight control. Having diabetes is also a potential cause of pancreatic cancer. Alcohol intake also has a role to play in developing pancreatic cancer. The higher the alcohol intake, the greater the risk of developing a condition called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas which can eventually lead to pancreatic cancer if the condition becomes chronic.

Overall, the pancreatic cancer is a difficult illness to diagnose with limited treatment options. Thankfully, there are a number of basic lifestyle adjustments that would reduce this risk. Also, at risk patient groups should be identified for close monitoring as early detection help us achieve better treatment outcomes.