Despite the strides made in improving survival rates for many types of cancer, pancreatic cancer remains an especially difficult diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer often goes undetected for a long time, which allows the cancer to spread throughout the body (metastasize). Metastatic cancers of any kind prove more challenging to treat than localized tumors that can be removed by surgery. Pancreatic cancer prognosis, in general, is not optimistic, but past and current research on pancreatic cancer and its treatment are helping improve the outlook. Caution About Survival Rates The disease is incurable, though life expectancy for pancreatic cancer patients continues to improve. When reviewing survival rates for pancreatic cancer, it’s important to remember that the data only reflect information from the past. Survival rates derive from tracking people who had the disease and passed away from it. These data cannot predict what will happen in the future, as researchers continue to make progress in more fully understanding pancreatic cancer and how to best target it with various therapies. Also, remember that every case of pancreatic cancer is different because each individual person is unique. Many factors beyond the cancer itself influence a person’s prognosis with pancreatic cancer. How Pancreatic Cancer Stages Affect Life Expectancy Like any other type of cancer, pancreatic cancer is classified by the stage, which is defined by the size and location of the cancer cells. In general, low-stage cancers are more treatable, with a higher chance of remission, than widespread, metastasized cancers. The relative five-year survival rate is the likelihood, or chance of living at least five years past diagnosis compared to people living during that same time period without pancreatic cancer. The current five-year survival rates at diagnosis for the following stages of pancreatic cancer are: Localized cancer (roughly corresponding to stages 0-IIA) = 34% Regional cancer (stages IIB-III) = 12% Distant cancer (stage IV) = 3% Overall average survival rate for all stages combined: 9% These data reflect survival rates as of 2014. They do not take into account people who have been diagnosed since that time, nor can they predict the course or life expectancy of any individual with pancreatic cancer. Factors that Can Influence Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rates The reason survival rate statistics cannot predict how long any single person might live with pancreatic cancer is because so many individual factors can affect prognosis. In general, people may survive longer when: They are younger at the time of diagnosis. They are in robust overall health. The cancer is diagnosed early. Their tumor undergoes molecular profiling to target therapy more effectively. These are genetic and other types of tests on a sample of pancreatic cancer cells. They receive palliative care for symptom management and support early after diagnosis. Difficulty of Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer Treatment About half of all cases of pancreatic cancer have reached stage IV prior to diagnosis because this type of cancer exhibits few symptoms in the early course of the disease. By the time pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, it often has spread far beyond the pancreas to the liver, lungs and other distant locations. Distant (metastatic) cancers are difficult to treat because they cannot be surgically removed, and instead of treating a small, localized tumor doctors must treat a widespread disease affecting many different areas of the body. Typically, stage IV pancreatic cancer requires chemotherapy to reduce the overall number of cancerous cells in the body and shrink the primary tumor of the pancreas. But this approach takes time, and many patients with stage IV pancreatic cancer do not survive long enough to see the therapy work. Studies of Pancreatic Cancer Survivors Offer Hope Early data from the American Cancer Society seem to indicate that overall survival rates for pancreatic cancer patients improved from 7% to 9% between 2014 and 2017, thanks to new, targeted therapies. And some people simply defy the odds and go on to live a long time after diagnosis. Studying long-term pancreatic cancer survivors (those who live or have lived longer than five or even 10 years after initial diagnosis) is helping cancer experts understand the biology of pancreatic cancer and how the body fights it, which in turn may identify new treatments. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you might benefit from participating in support networks—both in-person meetings and virtual (online) groups. Discussing your diagnosis and hearing from others who have beaten the pancreatic cancer odds can lift your spirits and give you strength during your treatment. Pancreatic cancer remains a difficult diagnosis. But with advances in therapies that target these cancer cells at a molecular level, life expectancy may be on the rise for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.