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Pancreatic cancer: symptoms, diagnosis and stages

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer vary significantly and depend on the location of the tumor:
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Discomfort or pain in the upper abdomen that may radiate to the back
  • Jaundice
  • Problems with eating and drinking (e.g. recent-onset diabetes)
  • Problems with stool (e.g. constipation or diarrhea)
  • Fatigue or lethargy

Pancreatic cancer is also known as a ‘silent’ disease. In the early stages of the disease, symptoms are rarely present.

About 1800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Belgium every year

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer

About 1.800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Belgium every year. The disease is as common in men as in women and is usually diagnosed after the age of 60.

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer is often difficult. First of all, because of the location of the pancreas, deep in the abdomen between the stomach and the back. This makes it difficult for a doctor to see or feel the tumor during a physical examination.

>> Read more: What is pancreatic cancer?

In addition, the symptoms are not always obvious, and they usually develop gradually. A standard test for diagnosing pancreatic cancer does not exist, which makes proper diagnosing even more difficult.

In general, the diagnosis starts with questions on medical and family history, followed by a physical examination. A pancreatic tumor can only be visualized with imaging techniques (e.g. CT scan or MRI).


>> Read more on the progress, the treatment and the survival rate of pancreatic cancer below the infographic

infographic pancreas cancer diagnosis


Monitoring the progress of pancreatic cancer

Imaging cannot determine with 100% certainty whether an abnormal mass is a cancer or not, nor can it determine the type of cancer. Currently, there is no simple blood test to diagnose pancreatic cancer.

Patient’s survival rate

The survival rates of patients with cancer depend on the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis.

There are 4 stages of pancreatic cancer:

  1. the tumor is only present in the pancreas
  2. the tumor has spread to nearby lymph nodes
  3. the tumor has expanded into the surrounding blood vessels
  4. the tumor has spread to other organs

Potential treatment of pancreatic cancer

In about 20 percent of diagnosed pancreatic cancer surgery can be performed. This surgery is known as a Whipple procedure or pancreatic duodenectomy. This surgery can only be performed when the tumor has not spread to the adjacent tissues (stage 1). Another option is treatment with chemotherapy (medication) or radiotherapy (radiation).

These treatments provide a reduction in symptoms in about half of the cases, but they often have little impact on long-term survival. Without treatment, pancreatic cancer is very lethal. The mean survival rate after diagnosis is 4 to 6 months. After 5 years there is a survival rate of barely 9 %.


ElmediX strives to improve quality of life

ElmediX strives to extend the lives of cancer patients worldwide and to improve their quality of life. Initially, our focus is on pancreatic cancer, but other cancer types are also being investigated.