The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Pancreatic Cancer Part 3

The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Pancreatic Cancer Part 3. Late joining this series? Catch up on Part 2!

Famous Pancreatic Cancer Survivors | Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer Survivors

In early 2019, Alex Trebek, host of the game show Jeopardy, disclosed he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. This meant his tumor had spread into other organs in his body. He began chemotherapy treatment and has continued working. At the time of this article, he is in remission. He is also writing his memoirs which are due out in July 2020.  He has given hope to many. 

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009 (Stage I) and had a second bout in 2018 and continues to serve at the time of this writing at age 87.

Is Pancreatic Cancer Always Fatal?

No. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a prime example of surviving pancreatic cancer. Some folks have lived more than 20 years following their diagnosis. The good news is that the survival rate is getting better as treatment improves over time. You can read more about those statistics in the 5-year relative survival chart below.

How Long Does a Person with Pancreatic Cancer Have to Live? | Who is the Longest Survivor of Pancreatic Cancer?

There are cases of a few people living more than 20 years following the initial diagnosis. Charlotte Rae lived about 10 years following her diagnosis at age 80, and Richard Blish, of Saratoga, CA was diagnosed in 2009 and still going strong in his late 70’s.

5-year Relative Survival Rates for Pancreatic Cancer

The following information found on The American Cancer Society website. (Based on people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer between 2009 and 2015.)

SEER* Stage        |        5-year Relative Survival Rate

Localized                                             37%

Regional                                              12%

Distant                                                 3%

All SEER* stages combined              9%

Understanding the Numbers

  • These numbers apply only to the stage of the cancer when it is first diagnosed

They do not apply later if the cancer grows, spreads, or comes back after treatment.

  • These numbers don’t take everything into account

Survival rates are grouped based on how far the cancer has spread, but your age, overall health, how well the cancer responds to treatment, tumor grade, the extent of resection, level of tumor marker (CA 19-9), and other factors will also affect your outlook.

  • People now being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer may have a better outlook than these numbers show. 

Treatments improve over time, and these numbers are based on people who were diagnosed and treated at least five years earlier.

*SEER = Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results

What Is A 5-Year Relative Survival Rate?

A relative survival rate compares people with the same type and stage of pancreatic cancer to people in the overall population. For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate for a specific stage of pancreatic cancer is 50%, it means that people who have that cancer are, on average, about 50% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed. 

Where Do These Numbers Come From?

The American Cancer Society relies on information from the SEER database, maintained by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), to provide survival statistics for different types of cancer.

The SEER database tracks 5-year relative survival rates for pancreatic cancer in the United States, based on how far the cancer has spread. The SEER database, however, does not group cancers by AJCC TNM stages (stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, etc.). Instead, it groups cancers into localized, regional, and distant stages:

  • Localized

There is no sign that the cancer has spread outside of the pancreas.

  • Regional

The cancer has spread from the pancreas to nearby structures or lymph nodes.

  • Distant

The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body such as the lungs, liver, or bones.

Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rates by Age | Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate by Age | Risk Factors about Pancreatic Cancer

The following information is from

Often, the cause of pancreatic cancer is not known. However, the following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Age

The risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases with age. Most people who develop pancreatic cancer are older than 45. In fact, 90% are older than 55 and 70% are older than 65. However, adults of any age can be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

  • Gender

More men are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than women (see Statistics).

  • Race/Ethnicity

Black people are more likely than Asian, Hispanic, or white people to develop pancreatic cancer. People of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage are also more likely to develop pancreatic cancer (see Family history, below).

  • Smoking

People who smoke are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who don’t.

  • Obesity and Diet

Regularly eating foods high in fat is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. Research has shown that obese and even overweight men and women have a higher risk of being diagnosed with and dying from pancreatic cancer. Chronic, heavy alcohol use can also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer, most likely by causing recurrent pancreatitis.

  • Diabetes

Many studies have indicated that diabetes, especially when a person has had it for many years, increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. In addition, suddenly developing diabetes later in adulthood can be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. However, it is important to remember that not all people who have diabetes or who develop diabetes as adults develop pancreatic cancer.

  • Family History

Pancreatic cancer may run in the family and/or may be linked with genetic conditions that increase the risk of other types of cancer. This is called familial pancreatic cancer. You and your family may be at risk if 2 or more first-degree relatives or at least 3 members of the family have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. First-degree relatives include parents, children, and siblings. ASCO encourages people diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma to talk with their doctor about their family history of cancer. Even without a strong family history, people diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma may want to consider genetic testing for hereditary pancreatic cancer. Learn more from ASCO about understanding your risk of familial pancreatic cancer. Please note that this link takes you to a separate ASCO website.

I did find some data on survival rates based on age but didn’t include it here as it applied to the UK and was from 2013.  You can view that data here.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series this time next week!

– Janette

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