What you need to know about pancreatic cancer

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was treated for a tumor on her pancreas, it was revealed on Friday, and she’s now healing after the successful procedure. “The Justice tolerated treatment well,” read a statement from the Supreme Court of the United States. “The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body….No further treatment is needed at this time.”

Fans of “RBG” exhaled a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the first time this year pancreatic cancer struck a popular icon: host Alex Trebek revealed his diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer in March.

So what is pancreatic cancer—and why should you be worried about getting it yourself?

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Your pancreas, tucked away behind your stomach, is an inconspicuous organ tirelessly producing essential enzymes and hormones your body needs for digestion, and to regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the organ, disrupting its necessary functions.

How is it Diagnosed?

Justice Ginsberg’s cancer was caught during a routine blood test in July. If caught early, pancreatic cancer is treatable. But the vast majority of cases aren’t diagnosed until it’s too late—in large part because no reliable early screening test exists. And when something goes wrong with it, your pancreas has a tendency to whisper, not shout. This makes pinpointing problems particularly challenging, especially when it comes to pancreatic cancer.

How is it Treated?

There are a variety of effective forms of treatment: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Justice Ginsberg’s treatment lasted three weeks. She will “continue to have periodic blood tests and scans.” Trebek underwent chemotherapy and his tumors are shrinking, he says.

What is the Prognosis?

According to the American Cancer Society, “for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one-year relative survival rate is 20%, and the five-year rate is 7%,” reports Pancreatic.org.

Trebek said he’d fight his, ending with a joke: “Truth told, I have to! Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host for three more years.” His good humor aside, the news shocked his fans—and many Americans. The “low survival-rate statistics for this disease” he said meant “the prognosis for this is not very encouraging.” As for Ginsberg, she “canceled her annual summer visit to Santa Fe,” according to the statement, “but has otherwise maintained an active schedule.”

Discovering it early was key to her recovery. See the following slideshow to learn the warning signs we should all watch out for:

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