Why pancreatic cancer is so deadly and early symptoms hard to spot

Pancreatic cancer symptoms are hard to spot

Every day, more than 1,200 people worldwide will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and an estimated 1,180 die from the disease. With a five-year survival rate of just 9 percent, it has the lowest survival rate among all the major cancers.

Thursday, November 15 marks World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day and advocates are working to bring attention to the disease and what's being done to improve patients' chances.

"One of the things that makes it really tough is that there is no early detection method. So by the time it's diagnosed it's late stage and difficult to treat," Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, told CBS News.

The early symptoms of pancreatic cancer are also non-specific and often benign, so many patients don't know something is seriously wrong.

"Things like stomach ache, lower back pain, unexplained weight loss, jaundice, or the yellowing of skin and the eyes, new onset diabetes," Fleshman said. "Those are some of the things where if you have more than one of those symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about pancreatic cancer."

Certain risk factors also make a person more likely to get pancreatic cancer. These include a family history of pancreatic cancer or other cancers, chronic and hereditary pancreatitis, diabetes, obesity, tobacco use, and a poor diet.

African-Americans have a higher incidence of pancreatic cancer compared to those of Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian descent.

The risk of pancreatic cancer also increases with age. The majority of people are diagnosed over the age of 60.

While survival rates are low, some treatment options are available.

"Usually it's treated through some sort of chemotherapy and radiation," Fleshman explained. "If it's detected early enough and hasn't spread, some patients are eligible for surgery."

She emphasizes that more research funding is needed to improve outcomes for pancreatic cancer and to support individuals and families affected by the disease.