Pancreatic Cancer Is Rising at an Alarming Rate in Women Under 55, New Study Finds
A new study finds pancreatic cancer rates are increasing in young women.
Pancreatic cancer rates are 2.4% higher in young women compared to young men.
Experts break down these new findings and how to lower your risk.
The U.S. has seen an overall decline in cancer deaths (death rates have consistently fallen over the last few years), but a new study shows a disturbing rise in a deadly form of cancer—pancreatic cancer. This deadly rise can be seen among young women.
The study, which was published in the journal Gastroenterology, analyzed data covering about 65% of the U.S. population from 454,611 patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer between 2001 and 2018. The researchers discovered that, while there was a similar rate of pancreatic cancer in older Americans, rates of the disease in women under the age of 55 rose 2.4% higher than the rates of pancreatic disease in men in the same age group.
The researchers included this chilling line in their conclusion: “There was a big separation of the incidence trend between women and men aged 15-34 between 2001-2018 and it did not show slowing down.”
Pancreatic cancer has a high mortality rate, with a five-year survival rate of just 11%. But why might women be at a greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer, and what can you do to lower your risk? Here’s what cancer experts have to say.
First, what is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the pancreas, an organ that sits behind the stomach and is shaped like a fish with a wide head, a tapering body, and a narrow, pointed tail, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Pancreatic cancer happens when cells in the pancreas start to grow out of control.
Pancreatic cancer can form from two kinds of pancreatic cells: The exocrine cells, which create enzymes that help you digest food, and the neuroendocrine cells, which make insulin to help manage your blood sugar, per the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Pancreatic cancer in the exocrine cells is the most common and is typically found at an advanced stage, the NCI says.
Why are pancreatic cancer cases increasing in young women?
This isn’t just something the study happened to pick up—doctors have noticed an increase in younger women as well. “We do see more [of a] younger pancreatic cancer patient population than before,” says Dae Won Kim, M.D., a medical oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center.
The study didn’t specifically explore why this is happening—it merely indicated an increase. However, there are some theories.
“The known risk factors of pancreatic cancer are smoking, pancreatitis, obesity, and genetic-related risk factors,” Dr. Kim says. “There may be several factors associated with the study findings, including increased alcohol consumption in women, an increase in smoking initiation in early adulthood, and an increase in obesity.”
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 13% of adult women report binge drinking and nearly half of adult women in the U.S. reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. The CDC notes that biological differences in body structure and chemistry lead most women to absorb more alcohol, and take longer to metabolize it, than men. Therefore, making women more susceptible to the long-term negative health effects of alcohol compared to men.
“Alcohol use is associated with most cancers,” says Anton Bilchik, M.D., Ph.D., a surgical oncologist and division chair of general surgery at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and chief of medicine and director of the Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Program at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. “A recent study suggested that no alcohol is safe and the pancreas is particularly susceptible to the effects of alcohol.”
Nearly 42% of Americans are considered obese—a condition with rates that have been increasing for years, per CDC data. Data also show that 12.5% of American adults smoke cigarettes.
The study’s researchers also noted in a press release that there seems to be a particular increase in cancers of pancreatic head adenocarcinoma, an aggressive and deadly type of tumor, which may explain the increased rates.
Why this is causing pancreatic cancer rates to jump up in young women, but not young men still needs to be explored, Dr. Kim says.
Pancreatic cancer symptoms
Early-stage pancreatic cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms, the ACS says. However, when symptoms show up, they may include:
Belly or back pain
Weight loss and poor appetite
Nausea and vomiting
An enlarged gallbladder or liver
How to lower your risk of developing pancreatic cancer
Not all pancreatic cancers are preventable, Dr. Bilchik points out. However, he says, “there are preventable causes we know about.” Those can include, per the ACS:
Try to eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting or avoiding red and processed meats, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods
Try to maintain a healthy weight
Avoid alcohol use or limit yourself to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men
“However, further studies are needed to identify all risk factors,” Dr. Kim says. Overall, Dr. Bilchik says more research needs to be done on these “concerning” findings. “These findings are certainly not insignificant,” he adds.
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