Why is pancreatic cancer so difficult to treat?
Answer From Karthik Giridhar, M.D.
Pancreatic cancer, also known as pancreatic adenocarcinoma, is one of the deadliest cancers. Even with aggressive treatment, the prognosis is poor.
Various factors stack the odds against successful pancreatic cancer treatment:
Early detection is uncommon. Few pancreatic cancers are found in the early stages of the disease, when the cancerous cells can be surgically removed. Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer — such as pain in the upper abdomen, yellow skin and eyes, and weight loss — don't typically occur until the disease is advanced.
There are no effective screening tests for pancreatic cancer. If you or your family has a significant history of pancreatic or other cancer, discuss with your doctor whether you should be undergoing any genetic testing or routine checkups.
- Pancreatic cancer tends to spread quickly. The pancreas lies at the junction of several very important structures in your abdomen, making it easy for the cancer to spread into these structures and other organs. Pancreatic cancer often spreads to nearby organs — including the liver, gallbladder and intestines — early in the course of the disease.
- Recurrence is likely. Even after surgical removal, pancreatic cancer often recurs.
Most people with pancreatic cancer undergo chemotherapy as part of their treatment. Several newer combination treatments show promise in increasing the response rate to pancreatic cancer treatment.
Karthik Giridhar, M.D.
Aug. 04, 2021
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- Fernandez-del Castillo C. Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of exocrine pancreatic cancer. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed June 10, 2019.
- Ryan DP, et al. Treatment for potentially resectable exocrine pancreatic cancer. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed June 10, 2019.
- Ryan DP. Chemotherapy for advanced exocrine pancreatic cancer. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed June 10, 2019.
- Pancreatic cancer treatment (PDQ) — Health professional version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/hp/pancreatic-treatment-pdq. Accessed July 5, 2019.
- Pancreatic cancer. Cancer.net. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/pancreatic-cancer. Accessed June 11, 2019.
- Pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Plymouth Meeting, Pa.: National Comprehensive Cancer Network. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/default.aspx. Accessed April 1, 2019.
- Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Carcinoma of the pancreas. In: Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier; 2020. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed April 1, 2019.