In a recent study, Saint Louis University researchers have shown that there is a much higher risk of getting pancreatic cancer in patients with acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). They believe that this finding may eventually lead to some pancreatic cancers being detected earlier.
Pancreatic cancer - the fourth most common cause of cancer death in the US - is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage because it has few early warning signs and no established screening method.
Only 4 percent of those who have pancreatic cancer survive five or more years after diagnosis. This low survival rate is mainly because most pancreatic cancers are diagnosed at a very advanced stage.
Surgery is the only way to cure pancreatic cancer, but it is usually not a viable option in advanced cases where the cancer has spread. At diagnosis, fewer than 20 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer are still localized enough to be removed surgically.
Prior to this study, a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer had been observed in patients diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. However the rate at which acute pancreatitis precedes diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and the time that typically elapses between these two diagnoses is not well known.
Using the electronic health records of patients from the Veterans Health Administration between 1998 and 2007, study researchers were able to determine:
- How likely it is that a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer follows a diagnosis of acute pancreatitis;
- How often pancreatic cancer is preceded by acute pancreatitis;
- The typical time elapsed between an initial episode of acute pancreatitis and a confirmed diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Study researchers were also able to identify patient characteristics most associated with a greater pancreatic cancer risk.
In patients older than 40 with an episode of acute pancreatitis, 1.5 percent were eventually diagnosed with pancreatic cancer compared to 0.13 percent of patients without a prior episode of acute pancreatitis.
In addition, 12 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer had an episode of acute pancreatitis prior to the diagnosis of their cancer. Not only that, patients older than 70 had almost four times the risk of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer compared to patients between the ages of 41 and 50.
In addition, of all the cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed after an episode of acute pancreatitis, 55 percent were diagnosed 3-24 months after the episode of pancreatitis.
These results clearly show that many cases of pancreatic cancer potentially could have been diagnosed earlier, had patients with acute pancreatitis been evaluated for pancreatic cancer - which is why the authors of the study recommend that all patients over the age of 40 with acute pancreatitis should be routinely evaluated for pancreatic cancer with esophageal ultrasound.