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Pancreatic cancer is a disease that primarily manifests in the exocrine pancreas, the component that synthesizes and secretes digestive juices in response to food intake. In 2009, it was the primary cause of death for approximately 35,000 US citizens. Pancreatic cancer life expectancy is commonly discussed in terms of a 5-year survival rate (or life expectancy). This term refers to the length of time person lives 5 years after diagnosis compared to a person in the general population. Based on the American Joint Committee on Cancer guidelines, these rates are determined by the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis. In essence, the more advanced the stage of cancer, the lower the 5-year survival rate. The following section briefly describes the stages and highlights the corresponding survival rates.
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5-year Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rates (by Stage)
- Stage IA – Pancreatic tumor is less than 2 cm and confined to pancreas; 37% 5-year survival rate.
- Stage IB- Pancreatic tumor is more than 2 cm and confined to pancreas; 21% 5-year survival rate.
- Stage IIA – Pancreatic tumor has moved beyond the pancreas but not into large vessels, lymph nodes, or distant body sites; 12% 5-year survival rate.
- Stage IIB – Pancreatic tumor is confined to the pancreas or growing outside the pancreas and has spread to the lymph nodes but not into large vessels and distant body sites; 6% 5-year survival rate.
- Stage III – Pancreatic tumor is growing outside the pancreas and into major blood vessels or major nerves with or without spreading to nearby lymph nodes and no migration to distant sites; 2% 5-year survival rate.
- Stage IV – The pancreatic tumor has spread to distant sites; 1% 5-year survival rate.
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It is important to note that while stage of pancreatic cancer at time of diagnosis is the most significant key factor in determining pancreatic cancer life expectancy, other patient- and stage-related factors (patient’s general health, whether or not the tumor can be surgically removed) play a role. In addition, while it is indeed possible for a patient to live beyond 5 years, previous mortality statistics suggest that less than 4% of patients diagnosed at any one time will reach this milestone. This is due, in part, to the fact that most symptoms don’t present until the disease is advanced and often attributed to less serious conditions or illnesses by the patient and/or their clinician.
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In sum, exocrine pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease with a relatively poor diagnosis even when a patient is detected at early stages. The good news, however, is that numerous treatment options are currently in place to help patients and their families make informed decisions about their desired course of disease management.
References: American Cancer Society, The Mayo Clinic