Here’s why pancreatic cancer kills so often


(CNN) - “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek died on Sunday more than a year after he announced he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Alex Trebek poses in the press room with the award for outstanding game show host for "Jeopardy!" at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards at the Pasadena Civic Center on Sunday, May 5, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. Trebek died Sunday after having been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Alex Trebek poses in the press room with the award for outstanding game show host for "Jeopardy!" at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards at the Pasadena Civic Center on Sunday, May 5, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. Trebek died Sunday after having been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. (Source: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

In the past four months, the disease has also taken women’s rights icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and civil rights legend John Lewis.

It’s a disease that’s hard to find early. The pancreas is deep inside the body, so early tumors may not be seen or felt during routine exams.

People usually have no symptoms until the cancer has become large or spreads to other organs.

“To make a real impact on this disease, we’re going to have to get better therapies,” said Dr. William Cance, surgical oncologist with the American Cancer Society.

He said there are a lot of new therapies in trials, but in his 30 years as a surgical oncologist, he hasn’t seen substantial advances when it comes to pancreatic cancer.

“There are newer tests coming that could potentially detect pancreatic cancer earlier, but again, the tendency for it to spread in the early stage doesn’t ensure that real early detection will translate into cure,” Cance said.

The overall five-year survival rate for all stages combined is just 9 percent, according to the American Cancer Society, but there are factors that put you at higher risk including family history, pancreatitis, diabetes, smoking, obesity and age.

While there are some advances in drug therapy allowing for longer survival, “We have a long way to go,” Cance said.

While symptoms don’t often appear until the cancer is more advanced, some include jaundice, stomach pains and weight loss.

More advanced symptoms could be a sharp pain in the upper center portion of the abdomen or getting full quickly.

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