HOUSTON (KIAH) – November is Pancreatic Awareness Month. This little-known cancer has a very low survival rate.

According to the Texas Cancer Registry Annual Report 2022, pancreatic cancer has been on the rise for the past two decades, making this disease the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the state. The report also showed the five-year survival rate for this type of cancer to be 14 percent.

The high probability of death is because there is a lack of symptoms in the first states and there is no screening test to detect pancreatic cancer before it spreads. Earlier detection would mean that more patients could be eligible for surgery to remove the tumor, and it could lead to significantly higher survival rates.

There are also only a few treatment options. Then once a patient starts therapies, they often only add months, not years, to one’s life. But in rare cases, patients can live longer with the help of their own immune system.

Researchers are identifying biomarkers that may help in determining targeted therapies to help the body’s immune system destroy cancerous cells. One such biomarker is MSI-high found in only one to two percent of pancreatic cancer patients.

Dr. Dean Tsarwhas, Northwestern Medicine oncologist, said it’s important to have any tumor tested for various biomarkers in case there is an immunotherapy drug that might work against the cancer. 

“We know if you are MSI-high, you have a great chance of responding to immune therapy. But if you don’t check for it, you don’t know,” he said.

Texas Oncology identified these risk factors:

  • Age: The risk of pancreatic cancer increases with age, with nearly all patients diagnosed after age 45, and about two-thirds of people are 65 years of age or older. The average age at diagnosis is 70.
  • Race: Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans face a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than others.
  • Tobacco: People who smoke cigarettes are approximately twice as likely to have pancreatic cancer. Using smokeless tobacco products or smoking cigars or pipes also increases risk. Smoking is thought to cause about 20 to 30 percent of pancreatic cancers.
  • Weight: Those who are obese and those with extra weight around the waist face an increased risk of the disease.
  • Family History: Those with a family history of the disease have an increased risk. In some cases, the incidence of pancreatic cancer in a family may be associated with a genetic mutation. Genetic tests may identify a person’s risk.
  • Health Conditions: Pancreatic cancer is more common in diabetics. Chronic pancreatitis due to a gene mutation, cirrhosis of the liver, or the bacteria Helicobacter pylori may also increase risk.

Industrial Exposure: Working with chemicals used in dry cleaning and metal working increases risk.