What I Wish Everyone Knew About Pancreatic Cancer
When my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was shocked. We didn’t know anyone who had this disease. And as a doctor myself, I knew that the prognosis for those with pancreatic cancer is bleak: the five-year survival rate is just seven percent. But what I didn’t realize until later was how many people are affected by this terrible disease and how much more research needs to be done. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t have symptoms early on, yet it’s responsible for more deaths than colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers combined. That’s right—more deaths than all three combined! So here are some things you need to know about pancreatic cancer:
Early Detection is Rare
Unfortunately, early detection is rare. The pancreas sits deep in the abdomen, making it difficult to detect tumors on physical examination or using X-rays. Also, many patients are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when they are too sick to undergo surgery or other procedures that might lead to a cure.
Pancreatic cancer is often misdiagnosed because symptoms can be vague and nonspecific: abdominal pain, weight loss and jaundice (a yellowing of skin and eyes). Pancreatic cancer often does not present with any symptoms until it has spread beyond the pancreas—at which point treatment becomes less effective for many patients who undergo surgery as their first line of treatment.
Pancreatic Cancer Doesn’t Have Symptoms
- Pancreatic Cancer does not always have symptoms.
- Symptoms can be vague and may include:
- Pain in the back, side or abdomen (the most common symptom)
- Loss of appetite (anorexia)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Other possible symptoms include:
- Blood in stool
- Unexplained weight loss
My Family Wasn’t At Risk for Pancreatic Cancer
- Although pancreatic cancer is not common, it still affects many people. In fact, it’s the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the world.
- The risk of developing pancreatic cancer is very low; only about 1% of people will be diagnosed with this disease in their lifetime.
- The risk of developing pancreatic cancer is higher in those who have a family history of the disease or who smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol regularly (or use other tobacco products).
My Treatment Was Exhausting
There is a lot of information out there about pancreatic cancer, but there are some things that people don’t talk about. I wish more people knew about these things because they could help others who might be going through the same thing.
- Treatment for pancreatic cancer is exhausting. It requires multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy treatments that can last anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours. These treatments have lots of side effects: pain, fever and chills, nausea and vomiting (to name a few). And they are not over quickly! You will need to take breaks during treatment so that you don’t become dehydrated or faint from fatigue or pain. I also recommend taking breaks if you feel overwhelmed by emotions—this too can make your symptoms worse as it’s hard for our bodies to process strong emotions when we’re already under stress from treatment.*
- Treatment for pancreatic cancer is painful — both physically and emotionally painful.*The physical pain can be unbearable at times; there have been days where I felt like dying would be better than living with this level of pain.* The emotional toll on caregivers can also be draining; many caregivers find themselves facing their own health issues while caring for someone else who may not recover well enough to return home again
I Had the Best Care Possible
When I was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what my treatment would entail or even how long it would take.
What did happen is that my doctors were amazing and caring. They explained everything to me in detail, and answered any questions I had no matter how many times I asked them. My doctors were always available by phone or email whenever I needed them (and sometimes even when I didn’t). They also referred me to specialists who could help with other parts of my care—my physical therapist, dietitian/nutritionist, psychologist and primary care physician all helped me manage the side effects of treatment as well as the disease itself. These connections not only gave me an invaluable support system but also provided much needed answers when things got tough along the way.
It’s OK to Share Bad News
You can’t control other people’s reactions, but you can control how you respond to them. You need to be able to talk about your cancer, your fear, and your anger. You also need to express your grief for what was lost.
This is something that cancer patients often struggle with—and it’s OK! It may be hard at first, but I promise that once you get started talking about these things with friends and family members who love you, the conversation will flow more easily after a while.
Medical Billing Can Be Confusing and Stressful
You might not be able to do anything about your cancer. But you can make an effort to understand the billing process and get help, so you’ll have a better chance of seeing some of that money.
People Need to Quit Smoking Already.
One of the most important things you can do to help prevent pancreatic cancer is to quit smoking. Smoking is the leading cause of pancreatic cancer, and it’s a habit that is hard to break. Smoking can also lead to many other health problems and make life more difficult for those who smoke as well as for their families and friends. It’s expensive, not cool or glamorous, and just plain gross—why would you want someone like that in your life?
Listen to your body, take care of yourself.
Being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can be a harsh blow, but it doesn’t mean that life is over. Take care of yourself and listen to your body. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or share your story. You are not alone in this fight and there are many ways we can all do our part to help raise awareness for pancreatic cancer and support those who are fighting it!
So, what do I wish everyone knew about pancreatic cancer? That it’s not a death sentence. That it can be treated, even if it is advanced at the time of diagnosis. The most important thing is that you get checked out by a doctor. Take care of yourself and listen to your body!