The pancreas is a small organ behind the stomach. It produces hormones like insulin and enzymes that help digest food. Like other very serious cancers, pancreatic cancer usually doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage. There is no reliable test to find pancreatic cancer at an early stage. With so little available to fight this disease, you might wonder why, as a women’s physician, I am talking about pancreatic cancer.
I realize that I am the only physician many of my patients see regularly. When you come in for your well-woman visit, I want to help you understand your individual health risks overall—not just your reproductive health. For pancreatic cancer, treatment does not yet provide the results we would like. For now, we try to identify factors that may increase your cancer risk. Sometimes you can improve your risk. Smoking causes a 20% to 30% increase in pancreatic cancer risk. Being very overweight increases risk by up to 20%. We want to help you with these difficult health challenges.
Other risk factors like age, race, and heredity are outside of your control. Pancreatic cancer seems to be more common in some families. Sometimes certain genes passed from generation to generation increase cancer risk for a group of tumors, rather than just one type of cancer. Lynch Syndrome—a genetic defect that causes high rates of colon cancer in some families—also affects pancreatic cancer risk.
We depend on the family health history you give us to tell us whether you might have one of these genetic risks. Keep it up to date. Inform us of changes in your family’s medical history at each annual visit—including both your mother’s and father’s side and going back two to three generations. If we see a risk pattern, we will discuss your option to have genetic testing. Newer research on pancreatic cancer is focused on finding tests will identify the disease at an early stage. These new tests are not offered to the general public, but they may be recommended to individuals with high genetic risk.
Most important, keep your doctor informed about changes in your personal health and family history. And a tip: any time extended families gather together, can be a good time to fill the gaps in your knowledge of your family’s health history.
Best wishes for continued good health.
Judi Favor, MD