Pancreatic Cancer is one the deadliest cancers because it usually remains undetected until it reaches an advanced stage, at which point it is often too late to cure.

It is a type of cancer that affects around 8,000 people in Britain a year - two of its most famous faces are Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze, both of whom died from the disease. Recently, The Guardian's beloved columnist Simon Hoggart died from the cancer.

However most people aren't entirely sure what their pancreas even does, let alone be on the lookout for symptoms.

stomach pain

Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, HuffPost UK blogger and chief medical officer for Bupa, explains: "Your pancreas is a part of your digestive system that produces digestive juices. Pancreatic cancer is caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in your pancreas. It’s the 10th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for around 3% of all new cancer. It’s very rare that people under the age of 40 will develop pancreatic cancer – most people who are diagnosed with it are over 65."

The experts acknowledge that it is really tricky cancer to diagnose.

Nick Maisey, consultant oncologist at London Bridge Hospital says: "It is very common that patients have incurable ‘metastatic’ disease (ie secondaries) already by the time the diagnosis is established, because the symptoms can often be very vague, eg weight loss, loss of appetite, mild abdominal pain. Approximately 80 to 90% of new cases have inoperable disease.

"Sadly the life-expectancy even with chemotherapy is less than a year, although recent clinical trials have shown some marginal improvements in prognosis with newer drugs. If the cancer is diagnosed at an early enough stage to be deemed ‘operable’ the majority of patients will still relapse, despite having gone through surgery and often chemotherapy as well. On average the chance of long-term cure following surgery is around 25 to 30%."

At the crux of it all are those vague symptoms that make it so hard to detect. What, if any, are the signs you should be looking out for? Dr Maisey says that pale coloured stools or dark urine can be a sign.

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  • Patrick Swayze

    The beloved star of "Ghost" and "Dirty Dancing" died after a battle with pancreatic cancer in September 2009, at the age of 57. "Now, a lot of things go through your head when you get a death sentence handed to you, starting with: 'Why me?'" he said in an audiobook titled <a href=",,20290371_20308571,00.html" target="_hplink">"Time of My Life," reported</a>. And though he blamed himself at first for the January 2008 diagnosis, he soon emerged with a new attitude. "I was not ready to go, and I'd be damned if this disease was going to take me before I was good and ready," <a href=",,20290371_20308571,00.html" target="_hplink">he said in the tapes</a>. "So I said to my doctor, 'Show me where the enemy is and I'll fight him.'" In fact, he told Barbara Walters in 2009 that he was both optimistic and realistic. "I'd say five years is pretty wishful thinking," he said in the interview, <a href="" target="_hplink">according to a HuffPost report at the time of his death</a>. "Two years seems likely if you're going to believe statistics. I want to last until they find a cure, which means I'd better get a fire under it." In February 2009 <a href="" target="_hplink">he wrote an op-ed for <em>The Washington Post</em></a> as a plea to Congress to "vote for the maximum funding to let the National Institutes of Health fight cancer and other life threatening illnesses" as part of the stimulus package: <blockquote>When I was growing up in Texas, my family had a simple response for challenges like this: "Stop talking about it, and <em>do</em> something about it." That's how I feel about finding more money for cancer research. My hope is that some day, the words "a cure" won't be followed by the words "is impossible."</blockquote> He died 20 months after diagnosis. His wife, Lisa Niemi, has stayed active in raising awareness around pancreatic cancer, <a href="" target="_hplink">signing on as a national spokesperson for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network</a>. "My husband Patrick not only touched the lives of millions with his work, but also with the strength and courage he displayed during his fight against pancreatic cancer; he was a hero around the world," <a href="" target="_hplink">she said when announcing a new awareness campaign for the organization</a>. "While it is bittersweet to mark this day, it is imperative that people understand the severity of this disease and the urgent need for increased research funding,"

  • Steve Jobs

    The founder and CEO of Apple may be the most public face of pancreatic cancer in the United States, having battled the disease for an estimated seven years before succumbing to it at the age of 56. For the rare form of pancreatic tumor that Jobs suffered from, a neuroendocrine pancreatic tumor, his survival was not unusual. Jobs was famously tight-lipped about the condition and his treatment protocol, though he did get a liver transplant in 2009, following surgery in 2004 to remove the tumor from his pancreas. As the<a href="" target="_hplink"> <em>Wall Street Journal</em> reported</a> at the time of Jobs' death, patients usually undergo tumor removal either if the cancer is contained to the pancreas and has not spread -- or if it has spread to the liver. "If you think it is confined to the pancreas, there is quite a good hope that the patient has gotten rid of it once and for all," Michaela Banck, a pancreatic cancer expert at the Mayo Clinic told the <em>Journal</em>, adding that in cases where it has spread to the liver, "you can't ultimately cure it. The more tumor you remove, you buy time for the patient." Though Jobs rarely spoke of his illness, he shared his thoughts on death with some frequency, including during a 2005 Stanford <a href="" target="_hplink">commencement speech</a>: <blockquote>No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.</blockquote>

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

    In truth, it may have been Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 1999 brush with colon cancer that saved her. Because she is a cancer survivor, Ginsburg gets routine CT scans as part of her yearly examinations. And in 2009, <a href="" target="_hplink">one of these scans turned up a small tumor on her pancreas</a>. Unlike most pancreatic cancer patients, Ginsburg was lucky to find the cancer early and, as of this writing, remains cancer free following surgery to remove her spleen and part of her pancreas in 2009. <em>CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this slideshow, Ginsburg was described as "chief justice." She is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.</em>

  • Luciano Pavarotti

    In July 2006, Pavarotti's manager announced that the famous opera singer had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent surgery for the removal of a malignant mass, <a href="" target="_hplink">the <em>Washington Post</em> reported at the time</a>. "Fortunately, the mass was able to be completely removed at surgery," the manager said in a statement, according to <a href="" target="_hplink">the <em>Post</em> report</a>. "Mr. Pavarotti is recovering well, and his physicians are encouraged by the physical and emotional resilience of their patient." He eventually died in his Northern Italy home in September 2007, <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>The New York Times</em> reported</a>.

  • Jack Benny

    The violin player and vaudeville, radio, TV and movie star Jack Benny (pictured here with Marilyn Monroe) died from pancreatic cancer on December 26, 1974, <a href="" target="_hplink">according to</a>.

  • Donna Reed

    The actress first gained prominence for her award-winning role in <em>From Here to Eternity</em>, though she was perhaps better known for her television roles in "The Donna Reed Show" and "Dallas." Reed was <a href="" target="_hplink">first admitted to the hospital</a> with bleeding ulcers, but screening tests revealed that she was suffering from a tumor in her pancreas. She died of the cancer within six weeks of diagnosis.

  • Charlie Louvin

    The country music star <a href="" target="_hplink">died in January 2011 of pancreatic cancer</a> at the age of 83. Louvin, a Grammy nominee and Country Music Hall of Famer, was diagnosed with stage 2 of the disease in 2010 after visiting his doctor with, <a href="" target="_hplink">what <em>The Tennessean</em> reported was a "minor complaint."</a> He performed all the way up until the December before his death -- at one of those last appearances, <a href=",,20460856,00.html" target="_hplink"> reported that he said</a>: "In my world, you are worthless if you can't continue. Show business is all I really know how to do. I would like for that to be the last thing I do."

  • Ben Gazzara

    Gazzara, a long-time dramatic actor, died in early 2012 from pancreatic cancer, <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>The New York Times</em> reported at the time</a>.

  • Dizzie Gillespie

    <a href="" target="_hplink">According to friend Nat Hentoff</a>, as the jazz great Dizzie Gillespie lay dying of pancreatic cancer at New Jersey's Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, he made his doctors promise to help ailing musicians who were less fortunate than he was. That turned into the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund and the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute at Englewood -- an ongoing legacy that doesn't just help those with pancreatic cancer, but any musician who lacks health insurance or resources to help treat an illness.

  • Fred Gwynne

    The actor probably best known as the patriarch on the 1960s television series "The Munsters," Gwynne died from pancreatic cancer at age 66, <a href="" target="_hplink">the <em>Los Angeles Times</em> reported at the time</a>. While his other roles included the television series "Car 54 Where Are You" and the play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," he always had a soft spot in his heart for Herman. "And I might as well tell you the truth. I love old Herman Munster. Much as I try not to, I can't stop liking that fellow," <a href="" target="_hplink">the <em>LA Times</em> quotes him as saying</a>. Gwynne acted for 42 years, <a href="" target="_hplink">according to <em>The New York Times</em></a>, and also once worked as both a writer and illustrator of children's books and as an advertising copywriter.

  • Joan Crawford

    Movie star Joan Crawford <a href="" target="_hplink">suffered from pancreatic cancer</a> at the time of her death at age 72 in 1977, though the actual cause of death was <a href="">listed as a heart attack</a>.

  • Michael Landon

    Landon was famous for his roles in period Western dramas, like" "Bonanza" and "Little House on the Prairie," but the actor was also well-known for his battle with pancreatic cancer. In an interview with <em>LIFE</em> magazine three weeks after diagnosis, <a href=",,20115519,00.html" target="_hplink">he famously said</a>: "If I'm gonna die, death's gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me." Despite chemotherapy, rest, an all-vegetarian diet and a course of vitamins and supplements, Landon died of the cancer at age 54 at his house in Malibu.

  • Count Basie

    William "Count" Basie was a famous bandleader and jazz musician who is considered responsible for much of the "Big Band" sound of the 1930s and 1940s. <a href="" target="_hplink">He died of pancreatic cancer</a> in 1984 at the age of 79.

"The most common is pain around your upper abdomen," adds Dr Zollinger-Read, "which may spread to your back. Jaundice is also a common symptom. Other symptoms include weight loss, feeling sick or vomiting and extreme tiredness. See you doctor if you have any of these symptoms. More than likely, it’ll be something far less serious than pancreatic cancer, but it’s always best to get checked out."

More research needs to be done to draw conclusions about how your lifestyle can affect the health of your pancreas - at present there is no solid evidence. Dr Maisey says that some believe in a link between 'higher risk diets' - so those that contain a lot of sugar and processed meats such as sausages and bacon - but there isn't proof.

However, he says, if you are smoking, stub it out. "Smoking however is a much higher risk factor and it is estimated that approximately 1 in 3 cases of pancreatic cancer are linked to smoking."

pancreatic cancer

Although both doctors agree that it's not as simple as saying 'Eat x,y and z and you'll ward off pancreatic cancer', The Food Doctor nutritionist Alice Mackintosh says there are foods you can eat to support your pancreas regardless.

"The pancreas is an incredibly important organ and is responsible for a great many roles in the body. It’s primary role is to secrete insulin, a crucially important hormone that controls blood sugar levels and in so doing regulates energy levels and a whole host of other tightly controlled reactions in the body. Insulin is secreted in response to a rise in blood sugar and whilst the pancreas is equipped to deal with this, overwhelming it with high levels of glucose continually can have negative effects on its function.

"It is vital to eat foods that don’t cause blood sugar to skyrocket, so aim to eat along the lines of low glycaemic index diet, with wholegrain complex carbs and protein being combined together. Cutting out sugar, white refined carbs and drinks is also vital."

Perhaps the pancreas just doesn't get as much of the limelight as the other organs, but hopefully awareness months will help to change that. As Alice says, the pancreas plays a huge role in how much energy we have as well as how efficiently our digestive systems run.

It isn't just cancer that we need to be aware of when protecting our pancreas - heavy drinking and gallstones can lead to pancreatitis, where the organ is inflamed.


She adds as a final thought: "Another fundamental role of the pancreas is to secrete digestive enzymes which break down food in the digestive system. Fail to do this, and you risk not absorbing nutrients properly. Foods containing bromelain can help support protein and nutrient digestion, thus supporting pancreatic function. Go for fresh pineapple or papaya which are rich sources. Bromelain is also highly anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich, which may help protect against pancreatitis."

For more information and support on dealing with pancreatic cancer, visit Pancreatic Cancer UK or call 020 3535 7099.