Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed in the advanced stages (Stage 3 and Stage 4) because symptoms are rarely present in the early stages. Pancreatic cancer consists of 3% of all cancer cases in the United States and only 10% are early-stage cancer. For a patient’s pancreatic cancer to be classified as stage 3, the cancer must have spread from the pancreas to other areas of the body. Either the cancer has spread to four or more lymph nodes nearby, or metastasized to the nearby major blood vessels surrounding the pancreas, which include:
- Portal vein
- Superior mesenteric artery
- Celiac axis
- Common hepatic artery
In stage 3, the tumor has not spread to distant sites and has grown in many cases, but not always. If the tumor has spread to distant sites from the pancreas, the cancer is considered stage 4. To confirm the diagnosis, imaging tests are performed, such as:
- Angiography (x-ray for blood vessels)
- Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) (shows abnormalities in pancreatic/bile ducts)
Once the diagnosis is confirmed, further tests can be performed to determine the stage of the cancer. A PET and CT scan can be used at the same time to view the extent of the cancer in both local and distant areas.
What are the Symptoms of Stage 3 Pancreatic Cancer?
One of the main reasons pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat is that most cases are diagnosed in the advanced stages. In early stages, the tumor does not usually cause symptoms. When the tumor does begin to exhibit signs and symptoms, it could mean that either the tumor has grown, or the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The common symptoms that patients experience in stage 3 may include:
- Back pain
- Weight and/or appetite loss
- Pain in the abdomen
Treatment Options for Stage 3 Pancreatic Cancer
The treatment method for stage 3 pancreatic cancer patients is determined by the overall health of the patient. The most effective treatment during this stage is the Whipple procedure, which removes a portion of the pancreas, and the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). Unfortunately, only 20% of pancreatic cancer patients are eligible for surgical resection. Extensive imaging tests are performed to ensure the cancer has not spread to distant sites.
The overall five-year survival rate for Stage 3 pancreatic cancer is between 3-12%. However, patients who are eligible for the Whipple procedure have a five-year survival rate of 25%. Other treatments for stage 3 pancreatic cancer are intended to ease symptoms and slow the growth/spread of the cancer, these treatments include:
- Radiation therapies
- Anti-cancer drugs such as chemotherapy
- Targeted therapies through clinical trials