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Understanding pancreatic cancer

07 November, 2018
Hands on pancreas

Pancreatic cancer was the 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia in 2015. In 2019, it was estimated that 3599 Australians would receive a new diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and up to 3051 Australians would die from the disease.

What is the pancreas?

Your pancreas is an organ of the digestive system responsible for producing enzymes to help digestion and hormones to help regulate our blood glucose levels. It’s around 15cm long and sits behind your stomach and under your liver and joins your small intestine. It helps your body digest food by releasing enzymes into the small intestine. The enzymes help to break down carbohydrates, fats, and protein from our food.

The pancreas also plays an important role in regulating blood sugar levels in your body. It produces insulin and glucagon which are important hormones that help to balance your blood glucose level, contribute to regulating fat storage and energy levels throughout the day.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer happens when cells in the pancreas become cancerous. These cancerous cells stop the pancreas from working properly. Most of the time, the cancer happens in the head of the pancreas. The survival rates for pancreatic cancer are low and after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, there’s only a 9.8% chance of surviving past five years. This is partly because the diagnosis doesn’t usually happen until the later stages of the disease and by this time, the cancer has usually spread to other organs in the digestive system.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

There are often no symptoms in the early stages of the disease and sometimes people only notice symptoms when the cancer starts to spread or affect nearby organs.

 As there are different types of pancreatic cancer, the symptoms can vary, but they may include:

  • pain in the abdomen
  • appetite loss
  • vomiting and nausea
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • dark urine or pale stool

Where to find out more

Understanding Pancreatic Cancer is a comprehensive booklet developed by the Cancer Council.

You can also call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20 for information and support on cancer-related issues.

Reducing your risk of developing cancer

According to the World Health Organisation, cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide. For every six deaths globally, one is due to cancer. The good news is that around one in every three cases of cancer can be prevented through diet and lifestyle. These lifestyle measures include managing your weight, reducing your intake of red and processed meats, reducing your alcohol intake, increasing your intake of vegetables and fruits, keeping active, stopping smoking and reducing your exposure to the sun during high UV times of the day.

Manage your weight

It’s important to maintain a healthy weight as it reduces your risk of developing several types of cancers as well as other conditions like heart disease and diabetes. It’s important to only eat and drink as much as your body needs and keep up physical activity. For more information, read about how to lose weight, healthy eating and fitness and exercise at the Department of Health and register to start your journey.

Reduce your intake of red and processed meats

According to the World Health Organisation, processed meats are known to cause cancer and red meat is thought to probably cause cancer. According to the Cancer Council, eating more than 700 grams of red meat a week increases your risk of bowel cancer and for every 50 grams of processed meat you each day, your risk of bowel cancer goes up 1.18 times.

Reduce your alcohol intake

Drinking too much alcohol is another risk factor for developing certain types of cancer. Draft Alcohol consumption guidelines were released at the end of 2019 for public consultation until February 24, 2020. The Draft recommends a change to the current 14 standard drinks per week guideline developed in 2009, down to 10, with no more than 4 drinks on any one day. Pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of 18 are advised not to drink alcohol at all. To find out more, read the standard drinks guide at the Department of Health. To check what a standard drink looks like, use this handy resource.

Increase your fruit and vegetable intake

It’s important to keep up your intake of vegetables and fruits each day to reduce your cancer risk. The Cancer Council and the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend eating five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit each day. One serve of vegetables is equal to one cup of salad, or half a cup of cooked vegetables. One serve of fruit is equal to one medium apple or 2 apricots. You can find out more about serve sizes from the Australian Dietary Guidelines. To get your 5 serves of vegetables in each day, aim for 2 meals where ½ your plate / container consists of non-starchy vegetables.  Starchy veg are potato, sweet potato and sweet corn for example.

Keep active

To reduce your cancer risk, it’s important to keep up your physical activity levels. The Cancer Council recommends exercising for 30 minutes five times a week to reduce your risk. Regular physical activity also helps to maintain a healthy weight which is also protective against cancer.

If you’re able to manage 60 minutes of moderate or 30 minutes of vigorous activity each day, your risk of developing cancer decreases even more. It’s important to remember that doing any physical activity at all is helpful. You can read about the Australian Physical Activity Guidelines at the Department of Health.

 Quit smoking

As well as increasing your risk of developing a whole range of cancers, smoking increases your risk of developing pancreatic cancer too. In fact, smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers. For help to stop smoking, read our guide on how to quit smoking for good.

Reduce your sun exposure

Here in Australia, it’s especially important to make sure you don’t spend too much time out in sun. According to the Cancer Council, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun causes more than 95% of all skin cancers. If UV levels are above three, you should be using sun protection. This includes clothing, sunscreen and sunglasses.

To find out more, read our article on how to reduce your cancer risk.


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified Health Care Professional.


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