Cancer death rates are set to shift dramatically in the coming decades, with pancreatic cancer poised to become the second-deadliest cancer only behind lung cancer, a new study finds.

As population makeups change, the prominence of certain diseases changes, too. Researchers from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network have projected the estimated rank of fatal cancers and cancer presence overall by 2020 and 2030. The changes, in large part, are due to an aging population that is  becoming more sedentary — not to mention rising rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity among younger generations as well.

These shifts in lifestyle factors, along with decreases among other cancers, have the researchers confident that by 2030, thyroid cancer will replace colorectal cancer as the fourth leading cancer diagnosis and melanoma and uterine cancers will become the fifth and sixth leading diagnoses, respectively. While breast, prostate, and lung cancers will remain solidly the top three for diagnosis rates, in terms of fatality pancreatic and liver cancers will fall in the two and three slots, ousting breast cancer and prostate cancer. Lung cancer will remain the most diagnosed and most fatal.

“Advances in screening, prevention, and treatment can change cancer incidence and/or death rates,” the researchers wrote, “but it will require a concerted effort by the research and healthcare communities now to effect a substantial change for the future.”

When it comes to pancreatic cancer, the prospect of advance has genuine hurdles. While lung, breast, and prostate cancers may easily lend themselves to observation — as doctors can often rely on just looking for cancers — the pancreas is nestled deep in the body. Of the more than 45,000 Americans who receive a diagnosis each year, pancreatic cancer kills 85 percent of them.

Researchers speculate rates will increase mainly because of rising obesity and type 2 diabetes rates. Among other duties, the pancreas is responsible for manufacturing insulin, a hormone used to regulate blood sugar levels. When the islet cells (those in charge of releasing insulin) can’t produce the hormone efficiently enough, the person may suffer from hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. Research has tied this condition, which has now come to be known as diabetes mellitus, with pancreatic cancer.

The best science can do to fight the disease is rely on biomarkers, essentially the body’s smoke signals, which come in the form of blood tests and biopsies. Scientists can look at biomarkers and analyze them for certain proteins and genes that may indicate the presence of the desired disease. Prior research in pancreatic cancer, for example, has found that two genes — known as BNC1 and ADAMTS1 — appear among people with cancer, but not those without it.

"We have mammograms to screen for breast cancer and colonoscopies for colon cancer but we have had nothing to help us screen for pancreatic cancer,” Nita Ahuja, associate professor of oncology, surgery, and urology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a press release at the time. Ahuja served as the lead author of the 2013 study.

"While far from perfect,” she said, “we think we have found an early detection marker for pancreatic cancer that may allow us to locate and attack the disease at a much earlier stage than we usually do."

 

Source: Rahib L, Smith B, Aizenberg R, et al. Projecting Cancer Incidence and Deaths to 2030: The Unexpected Burden of Thyroid, Liver, and Pancreas Cancers in the United States. Cancer Research. 2014.