ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Pancreatic cancer has long been one of the scariest diagnoses a doctor can give you. But with the right combination of treatments, surgeons and oncologists have discovered that pancreatic cancer may no longer be a death sentence.

Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, but it’s the third leading cause of cancer death in u-s, with one of the lowest survival rates. “The tumor tends to be very aggressive and it tends to spread early,” said Dr. Ankesh Nigam, Director of Surgical Oncology at Albany Medical Center.  

Dr. Nigam says most patients are diagnosed after the cancer has spread outside the pancreas, because early symptoms are vague. “People go see their doctor, their abdomen hurts, they feel like they have indigestion, and they’re not exactly sure what is wrong,” he said.

He says patients often take antacids, which may mask the signs temporarily. Sometimes they’re misdiagnosed with having diabetes, but eventually, the symptoms will progress. “They will not be able to eat, they may turn yellow (jaundice), they may have abdominal pain that goes to the back,” said Dr. Nigam.

It’s hard to diagnose pancreatic cancer in its earlier, more treatable stages. Once the tumor has spread, the best treatment, surgery, is no longer an option. “The best thing is to get an incidental finding of a pancreatic tumor during a CT scan of something else. If that happens the chances of curing is high,” he said.

About a quarter of cases are thought to be caused by tobacco use, but Dr. Nigam thinks it’s much higher.

“People always say they don’t smoke but when you ask, ‘Did you grow up in a family that smoked, did you work in a bar before the smoking prohibition in the bars?’ If you ask those questions, there’s almost 99% exposure to smoking,” Nigam says.

For pancreatic cancer associated with hereditary causes, the risk for women with the BRCA gene, typically associated with breast cancer is two to three times normal. Those women should be regularly screened.

The screenings include an MRI and endoscopic ultrasound to find small tumors, as early detection is the key to survival. Unfortunately, most tumors are discovered when it’s too late to operate, but advancements in chemotherapy and radiation may work to shrink the cancer.