Pancreatic cancer rates are trending upward for both sexes, with younger women and Black women seeing the steepest increase

A large-scale nationwide study from investigators at Cedars-Sinai Cancer has identified that pancreatic cancer rates are on the rise.

As it turns out, pancreatic cancer is rising faster among younger women, particularly Black women, than among men of the same age. Their work has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Gastroenterology.

‘There’s a need to understand these trends’

“We can tell that the rate of pancreatic cancer among women is rising rapidly, which calls attention to the need for further research in this area,” Srinivas Gaddam, MD, associate director of Pancreatic Biliary Research at Cedars-Sinai and senior author of the study, explains.

“There’s a need to understand these trends, and to make changes today so this doesn’t affect women disproportionately in the future.”

Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers

The pancreas is located just behind the stomach. Its job is to secrete enzymes and hormones that help the body digest food and process sugars. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. In other words, it accounts for 3% of all cancer deaths in the U.S. As this study has shown, it is more common among men than women.

In this study, investigators combed data from the National Program of Cancer Registries (NCPR) database, representing approximately 64.5% of the U.S. population, on patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer between 2001 and 2018.

The team discovered that rates of pancreatic cancer increased among both women and men.

One unexpected result was that rates among women under the age of 55 rose 2.4% higher than rates among men of the same age, while similar increased rates were observed among older men and women.

They also found that pancreatic cancer rates among young Black women rose 2.23% higher than among young Black men.

“And while we’re reporting improving survival in pancreatic cancer each year, that improvement is largely among men,” Gaddam said. “The mortality rate among women is not improving.”

Why are pancreatic cancer rates higher among younger women and Black women?

One possible explanation put forward by the investigators pertains to the type and location of tumors. Rates of pancreatic head adenocarcinoma, an especially aggressive and deadly type of tumor situated at the head of the pancreas, appear to be increasing, the investigators found.

While Gaddam said future studies need to examine the cause of these trends, he stressed that at this point, the increase is small, and his findings shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

Lifestyle changes can help reduce pancreatic cancer risk

The data coming out of this study is undoubtedly alarming, especially for younger women and Black women. However, lifestyle changes can help.

“The data shows us a small increase in risk of pancreatic cancer,” he commented.

“And that awareness might refocus people on the need to stop smoking, reduce alcohol use, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and manage their weight. These lifestyle changes all help decrease the risk of pancreatic cancer.”

Sometimes individuals with chronic abdominal pain are worried that they have pancreatic cancer, but Gaddam said that is usually a sign of another condition.

Seek medical attention if you are experiencing unexplained weight loss or jaundice

However, if you are experiencing unexplained weight loss or jaundice—a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes—you should seek medical attention. These symptoms can be potential signs of pancreatic cancer or another serious medical issue.

What does the future hold for pancreatic cancer research?

Looking forward, Gaddam’s research will focus on determining the causes of these trends. This means examining potential differences between pancreatic tumors in women and in men.

‘The goal [is] identifying and addressing disparities in patient outcomes and access to effective treatment’

“This continuing work will help us to evaluate the effectiveness of new healthcare interventions, with the goal of identifying and addressing disparities in patient outcomes and access to effective treatment,” said Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, director of Cedars-Sinai Cancer and the PHASE ONE Distinguished Chair.

“This is an ongoing focus throughout Cedars-Sinai Cancer as we serve our diverse population and can also inform public health policies to benefit patients everywhere.”


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