Share this Article:


Tony Subia
January 2016

Many pancreatic cancer patients are surprised by their diagnosis, often receiving the diagnosis after something as innocuous as jaundice or an upset stomach cause them to be recommended for a screening.

The Stage at which a particular cancer is diagnosed determines the extent of cancer within the body. The diagnosed stage also determines treatment options and influences projected average duration of expected survival. Of all the types of cancer, pancreatic cancer has the lowest 5-year survival of all cancers.

When pancreas cancer is diagnosed while still confined to the pancreas it is usually operative and treatments are considered “Curative”. Once the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other organs it becomes inoperable. Any subsequent treatments are considered as “Palliative Care” which only intends to control symptoms and extend quality of life. Projected average 5-year survival rates vary depending upon the diagnosed stage.

Early detection of pancreatic cancer, therefore, is critical. This can be achieved through screening tests, such as blood tests, consulting a genetic counselor about gene mutations, and endoscopic ultrasounds. However for the general population, there are simple ways to recognize high risk that would warrant a pancreatic cancer screening. Obesity, having had a cyst, family members or first-degree relatives with are all predictive of increased risk of pancreatic cancer. Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

Percentage of Diagnosed Cases By Stage

Stage 1: 9% localized, confined to the pancreas. This stage is critical because it offers the highest chance for successful treatment. In Stage 1 pancreatic cancer, the tumor is limited in size and hasn’t yet invaded nearby tissues or organs. This localization presents a unique opportunity for medical intervention, where surgical removal of the tumor is often possible and most effective. Additionally, patients diagnosed at this early stage may have more treatment options available to them, including less aggressive forms of therapy that can effectively target the cancer without significantly impacting the patient’s quality of life. Recognizing and diagnosing pancreatic cancer in this localized stage is vital, as it dramatically increases the likelihood of a favorable prognosis and long-term survival.

Stage 2: 28% regional, has spread to regional lymph nodes. This statistic reflects a significant stage in the progression of pancreatic cancer, where the disease has extended beyond the pancreas to nearby lymph nodes. At this regional stage, often categorized as Stage 2 or Stage 3 depending on specific factors, the cancer has not yet spread to distant organs, but its presence in the lymph nodes indicates a more advanced condition than Stage 1. The spread to lymph nodes is a critical factor in determining the course of treatment and prognosis. Treatment at this stage usually involves a combination of therapies, including surgery to remove the tumor and affected lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy to target any remaining cancer cells. The involvement of lymph nodes can complicate the treatment process, as it suggests a higher risk of cancer cells migrating to other parts of the body. However, early detection at this regional stage still offers a chance for effective treatment and can potentially lead to longer survival rates compared to more advanced stages. Understanding the progression of pancreatic cancer to the regional lymph nodes is essential for developing a tailored and aggressive treatment plan to combat the spread of the disease.

Stage 4, 53%, has metastasized to distant organs. This sobering statistic refers to the most advanced stage of pancreatic cancer, where the disease has spread beyond the pancreas and regional lymph nodes to distant organs, such as the liver, lungs, or peritoneum. Stage 4 pancreatic cancer signifies a critical phase in the disease’s progression, indicating a widespread impact that poses significant challenges for treatment. At this stage, the primary focus of medical intervention shifts from curative to palliative, aiming to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients. Treatment often involves a combination of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and in some cases, radiation therapy to control the growth and spread of cancer cells. The emphasis is also on managing pain and other symptoms, providing nutritional support, and addressing emotional and psychological needs. While the prognosis for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is generally less favorable than for earlier stages, advancements in medical therapies and personalized treatment approaches can still offer hope and improve outcomes for some patients. The understanding of metastasis in pancreatic cancer underscores the critical need for ongoing research and development of more effective treatments for this aggressive disease.

Stage unknown: 10%. This statistic points to a significant challenge in the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer. Being ‘unstaged’ means that, at the time of diagnosis, the extent of the cancer within the body hasn’t been determined. This situation can occur for various reasons, such as limitations in diagnostic tools, the patient’s inability to undergo certain tests due to other health issues, or the cancer presenting in a way that’s difficult to categorize into a traditional staging system. The unstaged category presents unique challenges in planning treatment, as the lack of precise staging information can make it difficult to determine the most effective course of action. In such cases, doctors often have to rely on a combination of available medical data, the patient’s overall health, and their response to initial treatments. Treatment strategies may include a mix of therapies typically used in various stages of pancreatic cancer, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, tailored to the individual’s condition. The goal is to manage the disease as effectively as possible, given the uncertainty about its full extent. This underscores the importance of continuous advancements in diagnostic techniques and flexible, patient-centered approaches to treatment in managing pancreatic cancer.

5-Year Average Survival Rate By Diagnosed Stage

Confined to the pancreas: 27.1%. This percentage indicates a considerable proportion of pancreatic cancer cases where the disease remains confined within the pancreas itself. Being localized, or restricted to the organ of origin, these cases represent an early stage of pancreatic cancer, typically referred to as Stage 1. This stage is particularly significant because it offers the best chances for successful treatment outcomes. When pancreatic cancer is detected while it’s still localized, surgical intervention to remove the tumor is often possible and can be highly effective. At this stage, the cancer has not spread to nearby tissues, lymph nodes, or distant organs, which simplifies the treatment process and increases the likelihood of a complete removal of cancer cells. In addition to surgery, patients might also receive adjuvant therapies like chemotherapy, which aims to eliminate any microscopic cancer cells that might remain post-surgery. Early detection and treatment of localized pancreatic cancer are crucial because they significantly improve survival rates and the possibility of a cure. This highlights the importance of awareness and early screening for individuals at risk, as catching pancreatic cancer in its localized stage can make a critical difference in treatment success.

Has spread to regional lymph nodes: 10.7%. This figure represents a significant portion of pancreatic cancer cases where the disease has progressed beyond the confines of the pancreas to the regional lymph nodes. This stage, often referred to as Stage 2 or Stage 3 pancreatic cancer, is a critical juncture in the disease’s progression. When cancer spreads to the regional lymph nodes, it suggests a more advanced stage than when it’s localized solely in the pancreas. This spread is a pivotal factor in shaping the treatment approach and has implications for the patient’s prognosis. In such cases, the treatment strategy typically becomes more complex and may involve a combination of surgical intervention, chemotherapy, and possibly radiation therapy. Surgery in this stage aims to remove not only the primary tumor in the pancreas but also the affected lymph nodes. This is followed by adjuvant therapies like chemotherapy, which are essential to address any microscopic cancer cells that may have spread beyond the removed tissue. The goal of treatment at this regional stage is to control the spread of the disease, alleviate symptoms, and enhance the patient’s quality of life. Early detection and intervention are particularly crucial in this stage, as they can significantly impact the overall effectiveness of the treatment and the chances of prolonging survival.

Has metastasized to distant organs: 2.4%. This statistic represents a relatively small but crucially important subset of pancreatic cancer cases, indicating those where the cancer has metastasized, or spread, to distant organs such as the liver, lungs, or even the bones. This stage, known as Stage 4, is the most advanced form of pancreatic cancer. When the disease reaches this point, it signifies that cancer cells have traveled through the body and established new tumors in other organs. This level of progression makes treatment significantly more challenging. At this distant stage, the primary goal of treatment shifts from curing the disease to managing symptoms and attempting to slow the cancer’s spread. This involves palliative care, which focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of the illness. The treatment may include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation, tailored to the individual’s needs and the specific characteristics of their cancer. Although the prognosis for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is generally not as favorable as for earlier stages, ongoing advancements in medical research are continually improving the options and quality of life for patients at this stage. The 2.4% of cases that reach this distant stage highlight the critical need for early detection and intervention in pancreatic cancer, as well as the importance of continued research for more effective treatments.

Reasons For Low Early Detection

The early symptoms of pancreatic cancer are notoriously subtle and often go unnoticed until the cancer has advanced and spread. This lack of obvious early signs means that many patients do not take these initial symptoms seriously, underestimating their potential gravity. Additionally, a general lack of awareness about the risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer contributes to this delayed recognition. Consequently, there are instances where pancreatic cancer is misdiagnosed, leading to a critical delay in appropriate treatment. By the time the correct diagnosis is made, it’s often too late for surgical intervention, which is most effective in the early stages of the disease. Compounding the issue is the tendency for some general practitioners to attribute the minor but persistent symptoms of early pancreatic cancer — which can mimic conditions like acid reflux, minor ulcers, or back problems — to less serious health issues, further delaying a correct diagnosis.

Become Your Own Best Advocate

Pancreatic cancer research is far behind more well-known cancers like breast cancer. While conditions like chronic pancreatitis or new-onset diabetes may prompt your gastroenterology specialist to order a biopsy or a CT scan, it is important not to wait until you’re experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, or when the biomarkers for pancreatic tumors begin to appear. Take a proactive approach to increase your odds.

If symptoms are severe or you have adult onset Type 2 Diabetes, demand an imaging test. Type 2 Diabetes is both a cause and a symptom of pancreatic cancer. This is particularly important if you are a smoker. Family history of pancreatic cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, and smoking are considered the major controllable risk factors of getting pancreatic cancer.

In addition, to safeguard yourself effectively, it is essential to follow seven major steps. First, be open to embracing a healthy lifestyle, which can significantly reduce your risk of developing various diseases, including cancer. Second, educate yourself about the risk factors associated with the diseases you’re concerned about. Third, familiarize yourself with the symptoms, as early detection often hinges on recognizing these early signs. Fourth, don’t settle for an initial diagnosis if you have doubts; seeking a second opinion can be crucial. Fifth, if there’s a history of cancer in your family, consider getting genetic testing to assess your risk. Sixth, if you find yourself with multiple risk factors and symptoms, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor for a thorough evaluation. Finally, be proactive in your health care: stay attentive, vigilant, diligent, and assertive in managing your well-being, weight loss, and in seeking medical advice. These steps can help reduce the incidence of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis by moving you from high risk to lower risk.

References and Other Related Information

Pancreas Cancer Stage Descriptions and Survival Rates
Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
More Information About Pancreas Cancer Staging
Other Pancreatic Cancer Statistics
Pancreatic Cancer Treatments and Outcomes

Disclaimer: Information provided is for informative and awareness purpose only and is not a substitute for expert medical advice and care. Always consult and get advice form a medical professional and/or healthcare provider.
Send this to a friend