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Ann Oncol. 1999;10 Suppl 4:140-2.

Pancreatic cancer: clinical presentation, pitfalls and early clues.

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Division of Gastroenterology, Mayo Clinic, Mayo Medical School, Rochester, MN, USA.


The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer usually depends upon symptoms; consequently it is late when there is no chance for cure. At this point, pain, anorexia, early satiety, sleep problems and weight loss are present. Back pain also may be prominent, which predicts unresectability and shortened survival after resection. However, earlier recognition of symptoms of pancreatic cancer might improve early detection of the cancer. For example, 25% of patients have symptoms compatible with upper abdominal disease up to 6 months prior to diagnosis and 15% of patients may seek medical attention more than 6 months prior to diagnosis. These symptoms erroneously may be attributed to problems such as irritable syndrome. Symptoms, however, may be less common. For example a quarter of patients with pancreatic cancer may have no pain at diagnosis, and half, particularly those with pancreatic head tumors, may have little pain compared with patients with body-tail tumors. However, if the tumor is suspected because of predisposing conditions, earlier diagnosis may be possible. These conditions include diseases such as chronic pancreatitis, intraductal papillary mucinous tumor (IPMT), and recent onset of diabetes mellitus, particularly if the diabetes occurs during or beyond the sixth decade. In addition inherited syndromes also are associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer including familial pancreatic cancer, hereditary pancreatitis, familial adenomatous polyposis syndrome (FAP) and familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome (hereditary dysplastic nevus syndrome). Of these conditions, recent onset of diabetes may be the best clue and should be included in a clinical profile of patients prior to the onset of symptoms to identify a high-risk group to apply screening strategies for detection of early disease. Contrary to a clinical aphorism that pancreatic cancer patients are elderly, lean and recently may have developed diabetes, we found that patients who develop pancreatic cancer are overweight prior to onset of symptoms compared to controls (body mass index, 28 vs 25). Forty percent had the diagnosis of diabetes made at the time of diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and more patients with a resectable tumor had diabetes (58%) compared to patients with locally unresectable or metastatic disease (37%). Perhaps, screening overweight persons who have new-onset diabetes may lead to a diagnosis of asymptomatic, early, resectable pancreatic cancer.

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