Pancreatic cancer is the eighth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the world. Apart from that, pancreatic cancer exhibits the least survival rate when compared to other forms of cancer, spares a mere 6% of its victims to survive more than 5 years after diagnosis.
While 94% of the patients decease within 5 years of diagnosis, 75% of them decease within the first year of diagnosis. When the tumor extends to other parts of the body, invades and ravages other healthy cells, the cancer is said to have ‘metastasized’.
If a patient is diagnosed after the onset of this process namely ‘metastasis’, the average life expectancy is just 5 months.
While the prevalence level of various kinds of cancer has been shrinking, the prevalence level of pancreatic cancer has been escalating. Moreover a shocking fact is that pancreatic cancer is one among the very few cancers for which the rate of survival hasn’t improved in over 40 years!
A feasible reason for pancreatic cancer being such hopeless and fatal disease is that it leaves no room for diagnosis in its formative years when the elimination of tumor is still possible surgically.
Also the cancer sources vague and equivocal symptoms like pain and change of stools that are usually attributed to any other common and minor anomalies in the stomach or abdomen and hence the disease is also called ‘Silent Killer’.
Of late pancreatic cancer is seen to have got considerable public attention after its affliction on celebs such as Hollywood actor Patrick Swayze and Apple CEO Steve Jobs!
How does it occur?
Pancreatic cancer occurs when there is an overwhelming and irresistible multiplication of cells in the pancreas but lack of the means to wipe them out.
Normally our cells follow a precise process of growth, division and death that is strictly regulated by the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) present in our cells. When impairment occurs in this process namely ‘apoptosis’ cancer ensues. This impairment caused in the apoptosis process is a result of damage or mutations caused in the DNA and therefore the genes inside it.
Of the several thousand genes in a DNA, each of which control a specific process, there are four genes that play vital roles in the cell-division process: oncogenes instruct cells when to divide, tumor-suppressor genes instruct them when not to divide, suicide genes tell the cells to kill themselves in case of any excess or damage in the cells and lastly the DNA-repair genes that enables the cells to repair damaged DNA if any. Cancer arises when mutations in the cells deprive them of their ability to commit suicide and repair the damaged DNA.
Cancer can also arise when mutations prohibit oncogenes and tumor-suppressor from functioning, causing an over-growth of cells.
The causes of pancreatic cancer can be broadly classified into three categories:
- Genetic – About 10% of all the patients with pancreatic cancer are found to have a history of the disease in their family. They are genetically predisposed to pancreatic cancer.
- Behavior – People who do not work out regularly and are obese, who are exposed regularly to carcinogens such as some pesticides, nitrosamines and metals in their occupation and who are employed in sedentary occupations are at more risk than the others. Also smokers become highly susceptible.
- Traits – More men than women and more blacks than whites are constantly found to have pancreatic cancer. Also it’s found to be more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews than the rest of the population.