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Pancreatic Cancer: Life Expectancy & What to Expect

Every year, over 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Of those who are diagnosed, more than three-quarters will die due to the disease. While modern medicine has made leaps and bounds towards alleviating or even curing many types of cancer, the outlook for pancreatic cancer patients has not greatly improved in the past four decades.

What is the Average Life Expectancy for a Person with Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer remains the third deadliest cancer in America, with as few as 8% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis, and 71% of those diagnosed given a life expectancy of less than one year to live. By 2030, pancreatic cancer is projected to be the #2 cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Once pancreatic cancer has spread to other organs, surrounding lymph nodes, or other parts of the body, the average life expectancy is just three to six months.


Why is Pancreatic Cancer so Deadly?

What makes pancreatic cancer so deadly is that, not only is it aggressive, but we know very little about it compared to other types of tumors. Many types of cancers now have exhaustive lists of well-understood risk factors. With pancreatic cancer, we can scarcely connect together more risk factors than family history and smoking. Additionally, diabetes, chronic pancreas inflammation, and a high-fat diet may also contribute.

What Are the Warning Signs of Pancreatic Cancer?

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include itching, weight loss, abdominal pain, and jaundice. Unfortunately, this vague list of symptoms may indicate a number of problems with the gastrointestinal tract or the abdomen, meaning doctors may pursue a dozen different diagnoses before considering pancreatic cancer. Worse still, these symptoms usually only appear in the later stages of the disease, when treatment options are far more limited and/or difficult.

The Importance of Early Detection: Survivors and Victims of Pancreatic Cancer

Recent research suggests pancreatic cancer doesn’t form overnight, as it so often seems. In fact, it may take as long as seven years to start forming a truly substantive tumor, and even longer for that tumor to spread to other organs. But without the help of early warnings signs through symptoms, and without an extensive list of risk factors, doctors have almost no opportunity to diagnose pancreatic cancer in its early stages.


Some people are fortunate to catch their pancreatic cancer early, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who survived thanks to a CT scan taken as part of a routine checkup. But because there is currently no non-invasive screening method for pancreatic cancer, most people will discover their cancer too late, giving them a grim prognosis, as was the tragic case with actor Patrick Swayze. While Swayze’s initial diagnosis gave him only months to live, he battled pancreatic cancer for 20 months before succumbing to the disease.

Apple founder Steve Jobs also battled pancreatic cancer, keeping his diagnosis secret for some time. Jobs had an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor, a rare form of the disease that accounts for 1% of total cases of pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed in 2003 and died in October 2011, shortly after stepping down as Apple’s CEO.

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