Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

The pancreas is located in the abdomen, surrounded by the stomach, intestines and liver, and is responsible for the production of insulin and digestive juices. Because it is shielded by other organs, the pancreas cannot be physically examined or palpated.

Statistics and Mortality Rates

Every year 29,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed in the United States, a relatively small number of cases, when compared to other conditions. Despite these low numbers, pancreas tumors are the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Five-year survival rates are lower than three percent, and overall mortality rates are approximately 98 percent.

Mortality rates are high because pancreatic tumors often remain undiagnosed until they have reached advanced stages, creating serious health risks. Symptoms may not even appear until tumors have metastasized (spread to other organs). Medical researchers hope to find better ways to detect tumors of the pancreas, to treat tumors more effectively, and hopefully, even to prevent the disease entirely. Clinical trial volunteers are always in demand for pancreatic cancer studies.

Risk Factors and Causes of Pancreatic Cancer

Smoking is one of the leading potential causes of pancreatic cancer: smokers are two to five times more likely to develop pancreas tumors than nonsmokers. Men appear to be marginally more at risk than women.

People of African American ethnicity are at a slightly higher risk than other ethnic groups. Risks increase with age: the disease is uncommon before age fifty, and most cases are diagnosed between the ages of sixty and eighty.

Medically, both diabetes and chronic pancreatitis have been linked to higher risk levels. However, these two diseases only account for approximately five percent of all cases. Certain hereditary diseases, including hereditary pancreatitis, nonpolyposis colon cancer, and von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome, have also been linked to pancreas tumors.

Under Debate: Diet, Caffeine and Alcohol as Risk Factors

The medical community generally accepts that high calorie, high fat diets are contributing causes of pancreatic cancer. Diet may account for as many as twenty percent of all cases. Coffee has been considered as a possible cause, but research has failed to establish a definite link.

More controversial is the role alcohol consumption may play. Alcoholism can cause chronic pancreatitis, which has been linked to a higher risk of cancer. Whether alcohol itself heightens the risk or not is debatable. Some studies see no link, while others claim that alcohol consumption can heighten the risk of pancreatic tumors two to five times that of the normal rate.


Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. (updated 2000). Pancreatic cancer: Symptoms. Retrieved March 13, 2003, from

University of Southern California Center for Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases. (nd). Gastrinoma. Retrieved March 21, 2003, from p ages/Endocrine tumors/pancreatic tumors/gastrinoma.html.

University of Southern California Center for Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases. (nd). Insulinoma. Retrieved March 21, 2003, from p ages/Endocrine tumors/pancreatic tumors/insulinoma.html.