Pancreatic cancer is a neoplasm that originates in the pancreas, an organ that secretes compounds involved in the digestion process and in the maintenance of glucose homeostasis. It is one of the most aggressive tumors of the digestive tract due, generally, to its late diagnosis. It is a rare cancer, representing 2% of the total number of neoplasms diagnosed.
The causes of pancreatic cancer are generally unknown. Most cases are considered sporadic, with hereditary cases being the least frequent. In addition to genetic risk factors, such as Peutz-Jeghers or Li-Fraumeni syndrome, other non-hereditary risk factors have been identified:
- Age and sex. Eighty percent of pancreatic tumors are diagnosed in patients over 60 years of age, with the male sex being slightly more affected.
- Tobacco consumption is the most significant environmental risk factor, being directly related to 25% of pancreatic cancer cases.
- Exposure to toxic substances such as chlorinated hydrocarbon-based solvents, nickel, silica dust or asbestos.
- Excessive consumption of red and processed meat. There are some studies that have linked excessive consumption of red meat with increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Diabetes. This condition is present in 40% of pancreatic cancer cases and has been postulated as a possible cause for its development.
- Infections, such as those produced by Helicobacter pylori and hepatitis B.
Pancreatic cancer usually has no symptoms in its early stages, which makes early diagnosis very difficult. By the time symptoms appear, the tumors have already grown very large or have spread outside the pancreas. Among the most common symptoms are:
- Jaundice and itching of the skin.
- Pale or greasy stools.
- Dark-colored urine.
- Fatigue and weakness.
- Increased blood glucose levels.
- Loss of appetite and weight loss.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen or belly.
There is no way to guarantee the prevention of pancreatic cancer. However, there are measures that can be taken to try to reduce your risk:
- Avoid smoking. Smoking is the most important and preventable environmental risk factor.
- Healthy lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight and favoring the consumption of fruits, vegetables and fiber-rich foods, avoiding red and processed meats.
- Avoid exposure to toxic chemicals that can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
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Klein AP, Wolpin BM, Risch HA, et al. Genome-wide meta-analysis identifies five new susceptibility loci for pancreatic cancer. Nature Communications. 2018 Feb;9(1):556.