DEAR MAYO CLINIC: How do doctors determine whether or not chemotherapy or surgery is appropriate for treating pancreatic cancer? Why do some people with a late-stage diagnosis have treatment, while others are told treatment will not help their situation?
ANSWER: The treatment plan for each individual with pancreatic cancer is unique to that person’s situation and the stage of the disease when it is diagnosed. But where in the past many people were advised that no treatment was available when cancer had spread outside the pancreas, today improved chemotherapy offers new treatment possibilities for this difficult cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is uncommon compared to other kinds of cancer, such as lung, colorectal and breast cancer. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are relatively nonspecific and can include abdominal or back pain, weight loss, new onset or worsening diabetes, and jaundice or yellowing of the skin. Smoking is the only known significant risk factor, and although a small fraction of patients have a genetic predisposition, the majority of causes are unknown. The lifetime risk of developing the disease for people in the general population is about 1 percent. Unfortunately for those who do get it, pancreatic cancer is one of the hardest kinds of cancer to successfully treat. The five-year survival rate now is just over 7 percent.