1. Pancreatic cancer is not a particularly common form of cancer. Despite the high-profile cases, fewer than 38,000 people were diagnosed with the disease last year, compared with more than 215,000 cases of lung cancer and almost 185,000 of breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
2. It is, however, extremely deadly. For all stages of the disease combined, about 20 percent of patients will be alive a year after being diagnosed, and fewer than 4 percent of patients will be alive after five years, according to the American Cancer Society. But as with most cancers, early detection improves survival; those diagnosed with the earliest form of the disease have a five-year survival rate (excluding deaths from other causes) of more than 35 percent.
3. Early detection is tough because symptoms are so vague. There may be no symptoms at all in the earliest stages, says the NCI. But the following symptoms may indicate a problem: pain in the upper abdomen or back, loss of appetite and/or weight loss, nausea and vomiting, jaundice, and weakness; those symptoms can also indicate a host of common medical problems, so don’t panic. (Ginsburg, a colon cancer survivor, underwent CT scanning during an annual checkup, which turned up the pancreatic tumor.) The difficulty of early detection is one reason the disease in its most common form is so deadly, says Gauri Varadhachary, a medical oncologist specializing in pancreatic cancer at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Other factors: It tends to metastasize elsewhere in the body very early on, and it’s resistant to chemotherapy and radiation.
4. Like other cancers, it‘s not one disease. There are different forms of pancreatic cancer. Jobs, for example, had what’s called a neuroendocrine, or islet cell, tumor. These are very rare but also slower-growing, with a better prognosis. The most common kind is called an adenocarcinoma. We don’t yet know what type Ginsburg has.
5. Some people are more at risk than others. According to the NCI, there are seven known risk factors for pancreatic cancer: being older (as with most cancers, age puts people at risk), smoking or past smoking, having diabetes, being male, being African-American, having a family history of the cancer, and having chronic pancreatitis. Obesity and diet may also be risk factors, as might exposure to certain chemicals. But many cases arise in people with none of those factors, says Varadhachary. While there’s no current screening test, trials are underway to see if endoscopy and ultrasound might make a difference in high-risk people.
6. Certain hereditary genetic mutations put people at risk. Those with a mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, known for their role in breast and ovarian cancer (including breast cancer in men), are also at higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Researchers are also looking at other genes that may influence pancreatic cancer, as well as other, nonhereditary mutations.