Pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer deaths. The main role of the pancreas is to secrete enzymes and hormones that assist in digestion and regulate the metabolism of sugar. Cancer of the pancreas begins in the tissue and spreads rapidly. Symptoms do not appear until the cancer is advanced, making early detection difficult and not typical. Since the pancreas cannot be removed, treatment usually consists of radiation, chemotherapy and targeted drug therapy.
Pancreatic Cancer Staging System
The risk for developing pancreatic cancer is 1 in 76, equating to 1.3 percent. Although the overall risk of pancreatic cancer is low, statistically, fatalities are high because the cancer is difficult to diagnose early. The stage in which the cancer is diagnosed is important in treatment decisions and life expectancy.
The American Joint Committee on Cancer developed a staging system called TNM. The staging system contains three elements: T, N and M. If numbers or letters are used after the T, N, or M, they provide more details. To approximate the life expectancy of a pancreatic cancer patient, the staging process must be identified.
T, N and M
The T in staging describes the size of the tumor(s), which is measured in centimeters. This staging also identifies if the cancer spread. The N in staging explains if the cancer spread to the lymph nodes. The M stands for metastasis. When a cancer metastasizes, it spreads to other organs of the body. With pancreatic cancer, the liver, lungs and the peritoneum are the most targeted organs for metastasis.
Numbers and Stages
The numbers or letters that may appear after the T, N and M give more information about the cancer’s progression.
• The numbers 0 through 4 represent severity. • The letter X means "cannot be assessed." • The letters "is" means the tumor is contained within the top layers of pancreatic duct cells.
This information then is combined to assign a stage. Stages are I through IV, with IV being the most severe.
• Stage 0 (Tis, N0, M0) • Stage IA (T1, N0, M0) • Stage IB (T2, N0, M0) • Stage IIA (T3, N0, M0). • Stage IIB (T1-3, N1, M0) • Stage III (T4, Any N, M0) • Stage IV (Any T, Any N, M1)
Survival by Stage
The life expectancy for pancreatic cancer patients is described in 5-year segments depending on the stage of cancer. Below is each stage and the percentage rate of survival.
Stage IA = 37 percent Stage IB = 21 percent Stage IIA = 12 percent Stage IIB = 6 percent Stage III = 2 percent Stage IV = 1 percent
Overall Life Expectancy Timeline
In sum, approximately 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients live at least 1 year after diagnosis. However, less than 4 percent live more than 5 years. Risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer include obesity, smoking, family history, age and race.