Pancreatic Cancer: Prognosis and Life Expectancy

Medically reviewed by Christina Chun, MPH on September 8, 2017Written by Kimberly Holland on March 17, 2015

The importance of early detection

A pancreatic cancer prognosis depends a great deal on the cancer’s stage at the time of diagnosis. Advanced stages of pancreatic cancer are generally more fatal than early stages, due to the spread of the disease.

Many cases of pancreatic cancer aren’t detected until the cancer has progressed and spread to other parts of the body. That’s why it’s so important to get regular check-ups and discuss with your doctor any concerns you may have about symptoms and overall health.

What’s pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that develops within the pancreas. The pancreas rests behind the stomach in your upper abdomen. Among other functions, the pancreas is responsible for two key bodily tasks: digestion and blood sugar regulation.

The pancreas creates fluids or “juices” that are passed into the intestines and help to break down and digest food. Without these juices, the body might not be able to absorb nutrients or break down food properly.

The pancreas also produces insulin and glucagon. These hormones are responsible for helping you maintain an optimal blood sugar level. The pancreas releases these hormones directly into your blood.

What are the stages?

Staging a cancer helps your doctor and your cancer care team understand how advanced the cancer is. Knowing the stage is important for selecting the best treatments and therapy options. It also plays a role in your outlook for the future.

Pancreatic cancers are staged on a scale of 0 to 4. The stages are determined by key information:

  • tumor size
  • proximity to lymph nodes
  • whether it’s spread to other organs

Stage 0 pancreatic cancer is not invasive, which means it hasn’t spread beyond the very top layers of the pancreatic duct, or outside the pancreas. In stage 4, the most advanced stage, cancer has spread beyond the pancreas and into distant locations in the body. Advanced-stage cancers spread beyond the primary tumor location to nearby tissues, blood vessels, nerves, and other organs. This process is known as metastasis.

Outlook by stage

You may be curious about your prognosis if you’ve been diagnosed and your stage has been determined. A prognosis is based on information compiled from people who have a similar cancer. Survival statistics may be comforting, or they may be upsetting.

No matter what, they aren’t definitive. Make sure you discuss your individual outlook with your doctor so you can better understand what it means for you.

Pancreatic cancer survival rates

An outlook is often given in terms of a five-year survival rate. This number refers to the percentage of people who are still alive at least five years after the initial diagnosis. Most survival rates don’t look beyond five years, but it’s important to understand that many people live well beyond that time.

Stage5-year survival rate
Stage 1A14 percent
Stage 1B12 percent
Stage 2A7 percent
Stage 2B5 percent
Stage 33 percent
Stage 41 percent

Survival rates for people with NETs, treated with surgery

Stage5-year survival rate
Stage 161 percent
Stage 252 percent
Stage 341 percent
Stage 416 percent

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), also known as islet cell tumors, are a rare type of cancer that develops in the cells responsible for creating insulin and glucagon. Survival rates for this type of pancreatic cancer are different than the more common type of pancreatic cancer with exocrine tumors.

The overall five-year survival rate is about 42 percent for people with this type of tumor, with a better prognosis than the more common pancreatic cancers. However, the five-year survival rate of a person with NETs who didn’t have surgery is 16 percent.

These statistics are from people diagnosed between 1985 and 2004. It’s important to know that these prognosis numbers are based on technologies and treatments that were used years ago. Treatments are advancing greatly every year. This is good news for people undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer today.

Make sure you speak with your doctor to fully understand what these prognosis numbers mean.

Improving your outlook

These survival rates are representative of previous years of treatment. As treatments improve, so do survival rates. Additionally, other factors influence your outlook, including your:

  • age
  • overall health
  • lifestyle
  • attitude
  • outlook toward your treatment process

You don’t have to sit idly as you undergo treatment for this cancer. Your doctor can help you make sure you’re doing all you can to improve your outlook and live a healthy life. Not only will you feel like you’re in control of your situation, your mental health and your overall outlook will likely improve too.

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