Pancreas graphic

Lung, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer have long been considered the “big four” cancers in the United States because the incidence of these cancer types surpasses all others, except non-melanoma skin cancer. But a new study—published in the journalCancer Research—projects that pancreatic cancer will become the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. by the year 2030, followed by liver cancer. Lung cancer will remain the first.

“This study is a call to action to the scientific and clinical communities, as well as the population at large, to increase attention, awareness, and ultimately progress in the fight against pancreatic cancer,” said Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, vice president of scientific and medical affairs at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCan), in a prepared statement.

Researchers pegged the rising death toll from liver and pancreatic cancer to changing demographics and inroads in diagnosing and treating the big four cancers, coupled with lack of progress in early identification and effective treatment of liver and pancreatic cancer. The authors called their findings a “wake-up call to the research and healthcare systems in the United States.”

Pancreatic cancer, they observed, has the lowest 5-year relative survival rate of all cancers reported by the American Cancer Society; just 6%. Surgical resection still is the only potential cure, but less than 20% of patients qualify for this procedure. The authors also indicated that analysis of pancreatic cancer death rates since 1970 shows “complex patterns” largely unexplained by known risk factors. By the same token, treatment for hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer, is limited to surgery and a single chemotherapeutic drug, leading to poor survival rates.

“If we want to change the death rate for these diseases, it is necessary to increase the investment in understanding them and identifying early detection strategies and therapeutic targets that can be translated and tested in clinical trials,” the authors wrote. “Given the extensive process required to validate an early detection biomarker for clinical use and the estimated 7.9 years required for clinical testing and approval of a new cancer therapy, there is clearly a need to invest in basic, translational, and clinical research now to be prepared for the dramatic increase expected in the next 10 to 20 years.”

“Overall, it is encouraging that the cancer death rate in the United States is declining each year, and the numbers of deaths caused by several major cancers are following that trend and dropping,” said Matrisian, adding that pancreatic cancer is traditionally understudied and underfunded. “The scientific and clinical research communities must bring successes from other cancer types to bear on tackling pancreatic and liver cancers and improving outcomes for patients.”

PanCan, based in Manhattan Beach, California, conducted and funded the research. Read the study online.​