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More patients are surviving pancreatic cancer every year. It’s a relief for patients, families and doctors to finally see better success in the treatment of the disease. The survival rate of patients five years after diagnosis is currently about 9%, while in 2014 the rate was 5%. This is progress, but there’s a long way to go.

Much of the increase has come from faster and more accurate diagnosis. Surviving pancreatic cancer is largely a diagnostic success. That’s why a late diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, to say nothing of a failure to diagnose, can result in medical malpractice suits.

Survival depends on diagnosing pancreatic cancer

The overall health and age of patients can matter to their survival rate, as can access to clinical trials and specialists. The most important factor in survival rates is probably when the initial diagnosis is made, meaning at what cancer stage.

When diagnosed at Stage IV, the cancer has already spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body such as the liver, lungs, brain or bones, and the five-year survival rate is only 3%. If the diagnosis comes at Stages II or III, the tumor has already spread but is still “regionalized” in the pancreas and nearby or associated structures. Five-year survival quadruples to 12%.

At Stage I, the cancer is still confined to the pancreas and can often be removed surgically. The survival rate with such early diagnosis is at least 10 times that at Stage IV, or 34%.

Catching pancreatic cancer at its earliest stage

Almost 57,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, according to estimates, and almost 46,000 will die from the disease. The most common way people are diagnosed very early is in connection with another health problem, since at this stage there are rarely any detectable symptoms.

People afflicted with a known genetic syndrome or who have a consistent family history of pancreatic cancer are sometimes given an MRI or an ultrasound (given endoscopically, with a camera inserted into the mouth). These methods are not used to screen the general public.

Instead, experts recommend keeping a closer lookout for early symptoms and reduce your risk factors by quitting smoking, losing weight and eating colorful fruits and vegetables.