One of the major challenges is diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer is that it doesn’t present with specific and transient symptoms at its early stages. Pic: flickrcommons/ www.patientpower.info

One of the major challenges is diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer is that it doesn’t present with specific and transient symptoms at its early stages. 

Dr Emmanuel Nweke, PhD - whose doctorate was in identifying potential biomarkers for pancreatic cancer - and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Surgery, School of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University; said most symptoms at this stage might be associated with common and non-severe conditions.

“In some cases, the cancer is asymptomatic, but as the cancer develops, symptoms begin to appear, but these symptoms are dependent on the type of pancreatic cancer and its location in the pancreas. The location of the pancreas (back of the abdomen behind the stomach) contributes to masking of symptoms. Usually diagnosis involves a process; physical examination, laboratory tests, Imaging, and collection of biopsies for examination,” he said.

Pancreatic cancer was the fourth most common cause of cancer related death in 2017 in the U.S. In men pancreatic cancer featured after lung, colorectal and prostate cancer; whereas in women it was after breast, colorectal and lung cancer. 

Dr Lisa Dalmeyer, Radiation Oncologist at Cape Town’s Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital’s Oncology Centre, said In South Africa we do not have up to date statistics, the most recent being from the South African national cancer registry from 2014. “This seems to be more or less in line with international statistics. The mortality rates for pancreatic cancer have remained relatively unchanged,” she said.

“The biggest challenge with diagnosing pancreatic cancer is the late presentation of the disease. Usually once patients present with symptoms, the cancer appears to be in the advanced stages. The curative treatment remains surgery, but less than 20% of patients have resectable disease at presentation making cure in this disease very difficult. There is at present no routine screening program advised for the general population,” said Dalmeyer.

Warning signs to look out for:

  • Weight loss
  • Jaundice
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Floating stools

“These should prompt medical consultation. Tumours in the head of the pancreas are more likely to be diagnosed earlier than those in the body or tail of the pancreas, due to the mass,” said Dalmeyer.

Risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Exposure to heavy metals such as benzidine