What is it with the increase in pancreatic cancer among adults younger than 50?

Have you noticed that the people you read about with pancreatic cancer are almost always under 50, even 40?

Well, that “increase” in pancreatic cancer diagnoses in people younger than 50 or 40 is just an illusion — partially, that is. The other part is reality.

But first the illusion: created by a world laden with social media, 24/7 newsfeeds, endless talk shows, heightened cancer awareness and related charity work – a world that can’t get by without a few billion tweets per hour.

The illusion that more younger people are getting pancreatic cancer is also created by the fact that a younger cancer patient is more likely than is a 70-year-old one to participate in awareness campaigns that require energy expenditure.

It’s safe to assume that the average 40-year-old pancreatic cancer patient has a bit more energy than a 70-year-old patient.

But there’s also some truth to the observation that more younger adults are getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“On average, pancreatic cancer occurs in older people,” says Nadeem Baig, MD, a board certified gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Monmouth Gastroenterology, a division of Allied Digestive Health.

“In fact, over 90% of cancers occur in people aged 55 or older.

“Over the past few decades, the annual rate of people developing pancreatic cancer is gradually rising.

“In other words, we are seeing more people get pancreatic cancer on a yearly basis.

“So while it is still uncommon for young people to get pancreatic cancer, we are seeing more of them get it now compared to 20 years ago.

“Seeing a young person get any cancer is more of a shock to us than when it occurs in an older person.”

The True Statistics on Pancreatic Cancer (seer.cancer.gov)

• 53,070 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2016.
• Average age of diagnosis: 70
• Older than 84: 13.5%
• 75-84: 25.6%
• 65-74: 27.3%
• 55-64: 22%
• 45-54: 9.1%
• 35-44: 2%
• 20-34: 0.5%
• Under 20: 0.1%

Look at those numbers again. The “younger” crowd is in the single-digit percent range.

Illusion that Pancreatic Cancer Is Getting More Common in Younger Adults

Who’s more likely to post in an online forum that their friend was just diagnosed with this disease? A person whose friend is 73, or a person whose friend is 37?

Think about that. To learn your friend at age 37 was just diagnosed with this ruthless disease is more apt to motivate you to post about it online for some moral support or to just reach out for answers, versus if your friend were “old.”

This is because in old people, any kind of cancer is much more expected; it’s not a huge shock.

But in young people, it’s a monstrous shock, so people are more likely to post about it — and this includes the younger patients themselves.

You then catch the titles of these threads and draw a conclusion based on illusion.

The National Cancer Intelligence Network of the UK pursued the perceived increase in the rates of this disease among younger adults.

• Between 1998 and 2006, 53,265 people in England were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

• “The age specific incidence in rates in patients under 50 showed no significant decrease over this time period for males,” says the study.

• “For females there was a suggestion of a slight increase for the 20-39 year olds although this was only of borderline significance (p=0.044).”

• “These figures were based on very small numbers.”

The report concludes that “Younger patients will probably be greater users of cancer charities than older patients.

“In addition, this perception [that more younger adults are getting pancreatic cancer] may be the result of more younger patients being seen at larger regional specialist centers following centralization of pancreatic cancer services.”

CT Scans Detecting Pancreatic Cancer

“CT scan is a very good imaging study to detect pancreatic cancer, as it can see the pancreas quite well,” says Dr. Baig.

“CT scan can accurately detect pancreatic cancer over 80% of the time. Further, it can see if the cancer has spread to other organs.

“To optimize visualization, intravenous dye is injected to highlight the pancreas along with other organs in the abdominal cavity.”

Ultimately, a biopsy is what diagnoses this disease.

Dr. Baig’s specialties include gastrointestinal cancers and liver disease, plus gallbladder, biliary tract and pancreatic disorders. He is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  
Top image: Shutterstock/Chinnapong