A pancreatic cancer outlook 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 disease having spread.

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 checkups and discuss any concerns about symptoms and your overall health with your doctor.

Pancreatic cancer by the numbers

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that almost 58,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020. This year, just over 47,000 deaths will occur due to the disease.

Pancreatic cancer develops within the pancreas, an organ that rests behind the stomach in your upper abdomen.

Among other functions, the pancreas is responsible for two key bodily tasks:

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.

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.

The most common staging system for pancreatic cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system. It uses a scale of 0 to 4.

The AJCC stages and substages are determined by key information:

  • tumor size (T)
  • the cancer’s proximity to lymph nodes (N)
  • whether the cancer’s spread, or metastasized, to distant locations (M)

Cancers may also be described using one of the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) classifications or stages. The SEER program collects cancer statistics from nearly 20 regions throughout the United States.

If you’ve been diagnosed and your stage has been determined, you may be curious about your outlook. An outlook is based on information compiled from people who have a similar cancer.

Although they’re useful, survival statistics aren’t definitive. Make sure you discuss your individual outlook with your doctor so you can better understand what it means for you.

Understanding the numbers

An outlook is often given in terms of a 5-year survival rate. This number refers to the percentage of people who are still alive at least 5 years after their initial diagnosis.

Most survival rates don’t look beyond 5 years, but it’s important to understand that many people live well beyond that time.

The statistics below are originally from the SEER database. The corresponding AJCC stages are also included for easy reference.

Pancreatic cancer

The survival rates for people diagnosed between 2010 and 2016 are:

SEER stageEquivalent AJCC stage5-year survival rate
Localized pancreatic cancerStage 1, some subtypes of stage 239.4 percent
Regional pancreatic cancerSome subtypes of stage 2, stage 313.3 percent
Distant pancreatic cancerStage 42.9 percent
All stages combinedAll stages combined10 percent

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs)

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) develop in the cells responsible for creating insulin and glucagon. PNETs are rare. They’re also known as NETs or islet cell tumors.

Survival rates for this type of pancreatic cancer are different than the more common type of pancreatic cancer with exocrine tumors.

For people diagnosed with PNETs between 2010 and 2015, the overall 5-year survival rate is 54 percent. People with this type of tumor have a better outlook than those with the more common pancreatic cancers.

SEER stageEquivalent AJCC stage5-year survival rate
Localized PNETsStage 1, some subtypes of stage 293 percent
Regional PNETsSome subtypes of stage 2, stage 377 percent
Distant PNETsStage 427 percent
All stages combinedAll stages combined54 percent

The AJCC stages and substages are described below.

Stage 0

Stage 0 pancreatic cancer isn’t invasive. This means that it hasn’t spread beyond the very top layers of the pancreatic duct or outside of the pancreas.

Stage 0 cancer is also known as carcinoma in situ.

Stage 1

The cancerous tumors haven’t spread beyond the pancreas, and they’re no larger than 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) across.

Stage 2

In one subtype of stage 2 pancreatic cancer, the tumors are larger than 1.6 in (4 cm) across, but they haven’t spread beyond the pancreas.

You’ll also be diagnosed with stage 2 if all of the following apply:

  • you have tumors, no matter their size
  • the cancer has spread to up to 3 nearby lymph nodes
  • the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the pancreas

Stage 3

You’ll be diagnosed with stage 3 if all of the following apply:

  • you have tumors, no matter their size
  • the cancer has spread to at least 4 nearby lymph nodes
  • the cancer hasn’t spread beyond the pancreas

You’ll also be diagnosed with stage 3 if your cancer hasn’t spread to distant locations but it has spread beyond the pancreas to major nearby blood vessels.

Stage 4

Advanced-stage cancers, such as stages 3 and 4, spread beyond the primary tumor location to nearby tissues, blood vessels, nerves, and other organs. This process is known as metastasis.

Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is the most advanced stage. Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas and into distant locations in the body, such as the liver or bones.

Survival rates are representative of previous years of treatment.

There are great advancements in treatment every year, which is good news for people undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer today. As treatments improve, so do survival rates.

Additionally, other factors influence your outlook, including your:

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

Your doctor can also 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.