Is Pancreatic Cancer Curable? What to Know About Survival Rates

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When it comes to pancreatic cancer survival rates, the statistics can seem pretty grim. Pancreatic cancer accounts for one of the highest numbers of cancer deaths among all cancers, trailing only lung cancer and colon cancer (despite being much less common), according to the latest data from the National Cancer Institute. Just 8.5 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survived five years or longer, according to NCI data collected between 2008 and 2014. Only 26 percent survive a year after diagnosis.

“When people present with pancreatic cancer, it’s usually in the late stages because there really aren’t warning signs or symptoms that allow us currently to capture the cancer at an earlier stage where treatment may be more effective,” explains Walter Park, MD, a gastroenterologist and pancreas specialist at Stanford Health Care.

Why does the stage of cancer matter?

To understand pancreatic cancer survival rates, it helps to understand how cancer stages work. The “stage” of cancer refers to how much cancer is in the body. It helps the cancer care team determine how far the cancer has spread and what the best treatment options are.

Doctors determine the stage of a cancer by looking at:

  • The size of the original tumor
  • The location of the original tumor
  • Whether the tumor has spread to nearby, as well as distant organs
  • Whether the tumor has spread to lymph nodes (clusters of your body’s immune cells found throughout the body)
  • How the cancer cells themselves look under a microscope

Patients with the same type and stage of cancer tend to have similar prognoses and treatment options. “In general, the higher the stage, the more advanced the cancer. This often means shorter survival time and less chance of cure,” Park explains.

Pancreatic cancer stages

The stages of Pancreatic cancer follow the criteria below. (You can get more in-depth details about pancreatic cancer stages via the American Cancer Society.)

  • Stage I refers to cancer that has not yet spread and is only in the pancreas.
  • Stage II pancreatic cancer has started to spread to the lymph nodes, but not to other organs.
  • Stage III pancreatic cancer has spread to lymph nodes and nearby organs, but not to distant organs.
  • Stage IV pancreatic cancer has spread to lymph nodes, as well as nearby and distant organs. This is also known as metastatic cancer.

More than half of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed when they are stage IV, while only about 9 percent of pancreatic tumors are diagnosed when the disease is stage I.

Unfortunately, doctors do not have a good way of finding pancreatic tumors at the earlier stages. Symptoms usually don’t appear until later stages. And there is no routine screening test for pancreatic cancer, as is the case for more common cancers like breast cancer (which regular mammograms screen for) or colon cancer (which can be detected via colonoscopy).

Pancreatic cancer survival rates by stage

Survival rates and prognoses can vary based on type of tumor and stage at which a tumor is diagnosed. (For more on the difference between exocrine and endocrine pancreatic cancer, read All About Pancreatic Cancer.) But it’s important to understand that while statistics can help put a prognosis in perspective, they cannot necessarily predict what will happen to any one person with the disease. In other words: Everyone’s experience with cancer is different.

Stage I or II exocrine cancers

Pancreatic exocrine tumors  are the most common type of cancer, accounting for more than 95 % of pancreatic cancer cases. Exocrine tumors that can be operated on are generally referred to as “locally resectable” cancers, explains Park. That means the cancer has not spread outside the pancreas and surgeons believe that they can remove the whole tumor. These are typically stage I or stage II. Some tumors that are considered stage II may have spread to three or fewer nearby lymph nodes.

Though removing a pancreatic tumor surgically offers the best chance of getting rid of the cancer, survival rates are still low for cancers that are treated this way. There’s not great evidence on why this is the case, Park says: “The best explanation [we have] is that we think there is already microscopic spread not visible by current imaging technology.”

According to data from the National Cancer Data Base, 12 to 14 percent of people with stage I pancreatic exocrine cancer survive five years or longer. And 5 to 7 percent of people diagnosed with stage II disease live five years or longer after diagnosis.

Stage III exocrine cancers

Pancreatic cancer is typically considered “locally advanced” if it has spread outside of the pancreas to the major blood vessels and four or more lymph nodes, but it has not yet spread to other organs of the body, Park says. These tumors are considered stage III and typically cannot be operated on without first being treated with radiation therapy or chemotherapy to shrink the tumor enough so that it might be removed surgically.

About 3 percent of people diagnosed with stage III pancreatic exocrine cancer survive five years or longer, according to the National Cancer Data Base.

Stage IV exocrine cancer

Pancreatic tumors that have spread outside of the pancreas through the major blood vessels and to other organs of the body are considered stage IV or metastatic cancer. These tumors cannot be operated on and survival rates tend to be the lowest.

Approximately 1 percent of people diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic exocrine cancer survive five years or longer.

Pancreatic endocrine tumors

Pancreatic endocrine tumors, which unlike exocrine tumors, start in the endocrine cells of the pancreas, have somewhat more optimistic survival rates. According to National Cancer Data Base data collected for people diagnosed with this type of tumor between 1985 and 2004, the percentage of individuals surviving five years after diagnosis are:

  • 61 percent for people diagnosed with stage I disease who underwent surgery
  • 52 percent for people diagnosed with stage II disease who underwent surgery
  • 41 percent for people diagnosed with stage III disease who underwent surgery
  • 16 percent for people diagnosed with stage IV disease who underwent surgery
  • 16 percent for patients who did not undergo surgery (for all stages of the disease).
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