While pancreatic cancer survival rates have been improving from decade to decade, the disease is still considered largely incurable.
According to the American Cancer Society, for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20%, and the five-year rate is 7%. These low survival rates are attributable to the fact that fewer than 20% of patients’ tumors are confined to the pancreas at the time of diagnosis; in most cases, the malignancy has already progressed to the point where surgical removal is impossible.
In those cases where resection can be performed, the average survival rate is 23 to 36 months. The overall five-year survival rate is about 10%, although this can rise as high as 20% to 35% if the tumor is removed completely and when cancer has not spread to lymph nodes.
Tumor size does appear to impact survival rates. The larger the tumor, the less likely it is to be cured by resection. However, even large tumors may be removed and a number of patients with tumors greater than 4-5 cm appear to have been cured by surgery. There is increasing evidence that the best pancreatic cancer outcomes are achieved at major medical centers with extensive experience — those that perform more than 20 Whipple procedures annually.
In patients where a cure is not possible, progression of the disease may be accompanied by progressive weakness, weight loss, and pain. Effective techniques for pain management are widely available today and used by physicians experienced in the care of pancreatic cancer patients. The techniques include nerve blocks and various drugs that can be taken by mouth or injection. There are also a variety of effective techniques available to treat bile duct obstruction which may produce jaundice and stomach obstruction caused by growth of the tumor. Both surgical and non-surgical techniques may be effective.