It's claimed the lives of many well-known celebrities, including Steve Jobs, Michael Landon and Patrick Swayze. This year, it will inflict its wrath on approximately 44,000 people. Of those, 37,000 will lose their lives.
Pancreatic cancer isn't as rare as you might think. According to the American Cancer Society, it's the fourth-leading cancer killer in the U.S. In addition, it's a grim disease. The five-year survival rate, if found early enough, is about 25 percent.
"It's one of those cancers that, by the time you find it, it's almost always too late," said Dr. Mark W. Reilly, a radiation oncologist at Ogden Regional Medical Center. "I've seen a lot of it over the years. On average, I probably see a couple dozen cases each year."
It's not too preventable, either, Reilly said. One major risk factor is simply increasing age. A few people are unlucky enough to have a family history, and there are some indications that smoking is an important risk factor and that people with diabetes are more likely to develop the disease.
"Obesity has been shown to play a role. So has pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas," Reilly said, "Drinking coffee and alcohol have also been suggested as risk factors, but it's doubtful. We do know that men get it more often than women, and African-Americans get it more often than Caucasians."
Dr. Carl Gray, who specializes in hematology and oncology at Davis Hospital and Medical Center, said pancreatic cancer is most definitely a challenging disease. He typically sees 10 to 15 cases per year.
"It's difficult to diagnose because of its location deep in the abdomen," he said. "The pancreas is also a delicate organ with many functions in a busy intersection of the body where the liver, bile and endocrine peptides like insulin meet."
Because of the late onset, Gray and Reilly said most patients have advanced cancer by the time it's discovered. However, if it's caught early enough, the patient could qualify for the Whipple surgical procedure, which includes a redirection of the biliary tree and pancreatic duct, along with removal of part of the duodenum small bowel.
Even if pancreatic cancer isn't caught early, treatment with chemotherapy and radiation can prolong life.
"The statistics for pancreatic cancer are bad, but patients aren't statistics and there are some people who do well with modern treatment," Reilly said. "No one can ever know if they are in the group that will do well or not."
Symptoms, when they appear, include jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Dark urine and pale-colored stools are also a possible indication. Other symptoms can include upper abdominal pain and pain in the upper middle back that doesn't go away when you shift your body, as well as weight loss, loss of appetite, weakness, fatigue, and nausea and vomiting.
With November being pancreatic cancer awareness month, health experts are encouraging people to watch for signs and symptoms and see their physician as soon as possible.
"There's a lot of research going on right now, and new approaches are on the horizon," Reilly said. "Unfortunately, it's a terrible illness, and one thing I've found over the years is that some of the nicest people I've met are the ones who get it. It's really tragic."