Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis Often a Death Sentence

In death as in the last months of his life, Carnegie Mellon computer-science professor Randy Pausch tried to teach those he would leave behind.

The author of "The Last Lecture," which became a YouTube sensation, died Thursday night of pancreatic cancer, dedicating his final weeks to increasing public awareness of the almost-always disease.

Click here for more on Pausch.

Most pancreatic cancer cases are asymptomatic, meaning patients rarely exhibit symptoms of an illness.

The later the cancer is caught the lower the chances of survival, according to Dr. Avram Cooperman, surgical director for the Pancreas and Biliary Center at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City.

In March, it was revealed that "Dirty Dancing" star Patrick Swayze is also suffering with pancreatic cancer.

People ages 50 to 70 are most at risk for developing the disease. Smokers, heavy drinkers of alcohol and, in some cases, people with a genetic predisposition are most at risk for pancreatic cancer, Cooperman said. Some sufferers of chronic pancreatitis may also be at risk.

Besides eating right and abstaining from smoking and heavy drinking, there's very little that can be done to prevent the disease.

"There's no real screening test for it," Cooperman said. "There are markers that are being developed and there are studies that are ongoing, but it's not like lung cancer where you can take an X-ray of a person's lungs. There are screenings, but they present radiation risks and there are MRIs, which are expensive."

Caught in its advanced stages, pancreatic cancer, which affects about 30,000 people a year, has a 5 percent survival rate for five years. Caught early enough and treated with surgery and chemotherapy, the five-year survival rate goes up to 17 to 25 percent, Cooperman said.

"We surely wish anyone with this disease the best," Cooperman said. "But overall survival isn't good. Many never even make it to the hospital. Some have minor symptoms and, if treated with surgery and chemotherapy, the survival rates get better."

More on the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is the formation of malignant cancer cells and tumors in the tissues of the pancreas.

What are the symptoms?

Pancreatic cancer has very few early symptoms and, in some cases, may present no symptoms at all or symptoms that may be confused for other ailments. However, some symptoms include yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice), pain in the upper/middle abdomen and back and unexplained weight loss and fatigue. Sudden onset of diabetes may also be a symptom.

Who’s at risk?

Smoking and family history of the disease increase an individual's chances of getting the disease. Other risk factors include chronic pancreatitis and diabetes.

What are the treatment options?

Surgery to remove the malignant tumor is the best treatment. However, if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body such as the lymph nodes, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of these treatments may be necessary.

Ways to prevent it?

Don’t smoke/quit smoking. People at high risk for the disease may benefit from periodic screenings such as chest X-rays, annual physicals, CT/PET scans and MRI.