Can we limit our risks when it comes to pancreatic cancer?

What we all must learn in the wake of losing American icons Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Congressman John Lewis, and Alex Trebek

It’s Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and there is no more poignant reminder of its importance than the recent passing of three of our nation’s most beloved icons.  Two American heroes and one national treasure: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Congressman John Lewis, and legendary Jeopardy host Alex Trebek have all passed away this year from pancreatic cancer.

While honoring the memory of these three people and cherishing the gifts each of them brought us, let us also take a moment to better understand the disease that took their lives.  It is true that pancreatic cancer remains a devastatingly challenging diagnosis, but are there steps people can take to better protect themselves and their loved ones?

While there is no surefire defense against pancreatic cancer, there are indeed some facts everyone should know about pancreatic cancer:

FIRST, there is a genetic component.

Anyone at high-risk for pancreatic cancer can and should be screened.  Who does this include?  For starters, people who have a family history of pancreatic cancer are certainly on this list.

Moreover, scientists have pinpointed a link between pancreatic cancer and a mutation in the BRCA gene (pronounced “Bracka gene”).  This gene has widely been identified as a warning sign for women to screen for ovarian cancer and breast cancer, but often the risk of pancreatic cancer is completely overlooked. 

Dr. John A. Chabot, a pancreas surgeon at Columbia, explains, “Twice a year or so, I meet a female patient with the BRCA mutation, who has diligently screened for ovarian cancer and breast cancer, but nobody was screening her for pancreatic cancer.” 

Talk to your family members (including extended family) about cancers in your family tree, and discuss with your doctor whether you may have the BRCA gene mutation.  A simple blood or saliva sample can quickly answer that question.  

SECOND, take note of suspicious symptoms.  

There are a handful of important signals to note early on, and potentially report to your doctor.

  • Developing diabetes when one does not fit the risk profile.  In other words, when a person without conventional risk-factors like obesity or genetic predisposition develops diabetes, it could involve a malfunction of the pancreas.
  • Beware of sudden weight loss.  If you have not actively set out to lose weight and notice an unexplainable change, report that to your doctor, and consider a screening.  Likewise, if that diet suddenly started working after years without results, it might be tempting to accept the results, but be safe, and get yourself checked out. 
  • Jaundice.  A yellowing of the skin or the whites of your eyes. 
  •  Dark-colored urine or light-colored stools.  The pancreas is involved in digestion, so be mindful of anything that is consistently the wrong shade or color.
  • More generalized symptoms that are NOT specific to only pancreatic cancer.  Nausea, back pain, abdominal pain, fatigue, and blood clots are all symptoms anyone might experience for various reasons.  The main point is that if any of these are chronic and unexplainable, see a doctor, and add a pancreas screening to the list of considerations. 

THIRD, take care of your general health.

There are two major areas of your well-being that you can control. 

  1. Don’t smoke.  People associate cigarettes with lung cancer, throat cancer, and emphysema.  The truth is, smoking is also a systemic carcinogen that affects a person’s whole body.  That means the pancreas, too.  Not only might cigarettes increase a person’s chance of getting pancreatic cancer, smokers often develop it seven years younger than non-smokers.
  2. Stay fit.  Within reason, a person’s condition impacts the treatments they can withstand.  Commit (and re-commit) to a responsible exercise and strengthening regimen. Keep in mind that, in addition to the countless other ways Justice Ginsburg was a legendary role model, she was also notorious for her consistent workout habit.

As we continue to send love and prayers to the families, friends, and fans of Justice Ginsburg, Congressman Lewis, and Mr. Trebek, let us constantly celebrate their legacies.  These three people will always represent values like courage, intelligence, and optimism.  It is exactly those values that we need to eventually conquer this disease.  In the field of medicine, there is a lot of progress being made everyday to that end. In the meantime, remember this information and share it with your loved ones.

Don’t miss an update on news and content from Healthpoints, the blog from the Department of Surgery at Columbia.