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GUILDFORD, United Kingdom — Pancreatic cancer could be detectable three years earlier, if doctors look for two crucial warning signs. Researchers from the University of Surrey found that adding sudden weight loss and rising blood sugar levels to diagnostic tests could lead to a faster diagnosis and more timely treatment interventions.

All cancers are complex, but pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult diseases to treat. The survival rate for this cancer is low — less than 10 percent of people with this diagnosis will live for five or more years. One of the reasons for the abysmal survival rate is doctors usually diagnose pancreatic cancer when it’s already in an advanced stage. Almost 90 percent of people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed when there are no curative treatment options available for them.

“I was lucky to be diagnosed in time for surgery and ‘beat the odds’, but sadly this is not the case for everyone. Symptoms for pancreatic cancer are ambiguous and difficult for clinicians to diagnose; it was originally thought I had gallstones,” says Ali Stunt, the founder and CEO of Pancreatic Cancer Action, in a media release. “I am one of the one percent who survive pancreatic cancer beyond 10 years, and it’s a lonely place to be.”

To improve survival rates, the study authors focused on other diagnostic criteria that could identify pancreatic cancer sooner.

“Weight loss and increased blood glucose are recognized symptoms of pancreatic cancer,” says lead study author Agnieszka Lemanska, a lecturer in data science at the University of Surrey. “However, the extent of these symptoms and when they manifest have been unknown. Knowing when they develop will help clinicians to diagnose this deadly cancer, meaning treatment can begin earlier.”

When should weight loss become a red flag for cancer?

The study authors mapped out when weight loss and high blood sugar levels develop in relation to pancreatic cancer. Since the pancreas is essential for producing insulin and digestive enzymes, the team also tracked the onset of diabetes. Medical information was collected through the Oxford-Royal College of General Practitioners Clinical Informatics Digital Hub (ORCHID) database. In total, the team analyzed the information of 8,777 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and compared their symptoms to a healthy control group of 34,979 people.

Results showed that dramatic weight loss could indicate signs of pancreatic cancer two years earlier than current diagnostic tests. At the time of diagnosis, a patient with pancreatic cancer often had a body mass index (BMI) that was three units lower than healthy individuals. They also noticed increases in glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) three years before an official diagnosis, suggesting blood sugar levels start to change much earlier than diagnostic tests detect.

Weight loss and high blood sugar in people with diabetes displayed a connection to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those without the condition.

“Our research suggests that a dramatic and unexplained weight loss, mainly in people with, but also in those without diabetes, as well as an unexplained hyperglycemia, should be treated with high levels of suspicion,” adds study co-author Simon de Lusignan, a professor at the University of Oxford.

The study authors recommend adding regular BMI and blood sugar tests for people with and without diabetes. The tests could help identify people with the highest risk of developing pancreatic cancer, and potentially administer treatment while the cancer is in its early stages.

The study is published in PLoS One.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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