Pancreatic cancer rates are spiking in women 55 and under. Experts don’t yet know why.

Pancreatic cancer collage with jaundiced eyes, an IV bag, and a woman's hand on her face.
Pancreatic cancer rates are spiking in women under 55, according to a recent study. (llustration: Blake Cale; Photo: Getty Images)

Allison Lippman-Kuban was just 31 when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Lippman-Kuban tells Yahoo Life that she first developed symptoms of the disease after she returned from a vacation in France with her boyfriend.

"I was having severe abdominal pain that shot into my back," she says. "I had weight loss, fatigue, trouble digesting food — a lot of gastrointestinal issues."

Lippman-Kuban reached out to her doctor and had tests scheduled with specialists, including a colonoscopy, to try to figure out what was behind her sudden pain. "But the pain got so severe that I ended up going to the hospital," she says. She was hospitalized for five days, where she underwent a slew of tests. "I left with a diagnosis of neuroendocrine cancer and was later told it was stage 4 pancreatic cancer," she says.

"I was just shocked," Lippman-Kuban says. "I questioned everything, including why was my boyfriend staying with me. I had just been promoted at my job — I was nervous that I was going to lose that. Then, the fear of all of that subsided, and it was more, How long do I have to live?"

Lippman-Kuban says she was urged "to do chemo as long as I could," but her doctor also sent her biopsy to a lab for genetic sequencing. Her specific biomarker (a gene, protein or other substance that provides information about a type of cancer) qualified her for a clinical trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "I've been on that trial for five and a half years now," she says.

She says she's had a "change of lifestyle" on the trial. "I stopped chemo, I take two pills in the morning and two pills each afternoon," she says. "Within a month, my strength started coming back, my hair started coming back, and I was able to start rediscovering myself."

Lippman-Kuban's cancer isn't gone, but her tumors have shrunk by 70%. "I now treat my cancer as a chronic illness," she says. "I just take my medicine in the morning and the evening. I don't have any side effects from it, which is great."

Teona Ducre was just 41 when she was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer in 2016. She tells Yahoo Life she had "extreme pain" in her lower stomach and lower back, along with exhaustion, indigestion and "substantial" weight loss. "Upon my initial diagnosis, I was in disbelief and did not fully appreciate the significance of the fact that pancreatic cancer is most often terminal," she says.

Ducre discovered the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), a patient advocacy and research organization, and received guidance on her form of cancer, along with what to expect for treatment. She then underwent six months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery and five more months of chemotherapy. She's now a pancreatic cancer survivor. "Survival is not some specified date in the future when the tumor is gone —survival is every single day a person wakes up and did not succumb to the disease," she says.

Paula Mack Drill was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer five years ago, when she was in her mid-50s. She tells Yahoo Life that she had been on sabbatical for three months from her job as a rabbi and "was coming off the most healthy, toxic-free diet" when she started having symptoms. Drill hosted people at her house for Passover Seder and kept eating a chocolate and caramel dessert that she jokingly refers to as "Matzo Crack." "Around 5 a.m. the next morning, I had terrible stomach pain, which I assumed was from eating Matzo Crack," she says. "But it got worse and worse as the day went on."

The pain became so intense that Drill went to the emergency room. She was first diagnosed with pancreatitis — inflammation of the pancreas — but was later informed that the doctors had found a tumor. They suspected that she had pancreatic cancer (something that could only be confirmed with surgery) and needed surgery to remove the tumor, which was scheduled for three weeks from then.

"I was in deep denial," she says of her diagnosis, noting that she didn't look up anything about pancreatic cancer online. "I did not understand that pancreatic cancer is a killer," she added.

Drill's doctor was Dr. Russell C. Langan, director of surgical oncology, Northern Region at RWJBarnabas Health, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. "He saved my life," she says. He performed a procedure known as a Whipple procedure, to remove the head of the pancreas, where Drill's tumor was located.

"It's a very intense, really hard surgery, and he came to me after the surgery and was practically crying," Drill says. "He was able to take the tumor out. I was encapsulated. It hadn't spread."

Drill, who was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer, says she had "heavy-duty chemo" after that twice a month for six months, followed by radiation therapy.

Now, she says she feels "100% better." She just had a five-year scan that was clear. "Now, when I go in, it's like a little party," Drill says. "Everyone is happy, and we have a little celebration. I feel great."

While cancer rates have fallen in the U.S. as a whole over the last few years, there's been a disturbing rise in pancreatic cancer diagnoses. More specifically, rates are spiking in women under the age of 55.

A study published in the journal Gastroenterology in February analyzed data from nearly 455,000 patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer between 2001 and 2018 and found that, while rates of the disease rose overall, they climbed in younger women. Specifically, the researchers found that the rates of pancreatic cancer in women under 55 rose 2.4% higher than those of men of the same age. The researchers also noted in the study that the trend did not appear to be "slowing down."

Pancreatic cancer has a reputation as a fatal disease — its overall five-year survival rate is just 12% — and it used to be known as a cancer for older people. It also typically doesn't cause symptoms until it is in the advanced stages, Dr. Anne Noonan, a medical oncologist with the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, tells Yahoo Life.

While the majority of pancreatic cancer cases are people in their 70s, doctors say they've seen an increase in the number of younger patients over the past few years. "We are certainly seeing more patients with pancreas cancer, and some patients are younger than the usual age at which we typically see it," Noonan says. "Sometimes patients are in their 40s, 30s and even 20s."

Pancreatic cancer is "still largely a disease of aging," Dr. Shubham Pant, an associate professor in the department of gastrointestinal medical oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Life. "We are seeing a handful more of younger patients," he says. "Before, we would see one or two a year. Now we are seeing five or more a year. It is increasing, but it's a relative increase."

It's not entirely clear. The most recent study only found an increase in cases — and did not explore why they're on the rise. Langan says it's possible that this could be due to an increase in obesity rates or alcohol consumption, but it could also be due to a variety of causes. "I would favor the cause being multifactorial," he tells Yahoo Life.

"There are a number of theories," Noonan says, including that pancreatic cancer may be linked to a high-fat diet, smoked and processed meats, physical inactivity and certain genetic mutations.

"But it's very hard to say right now," Pant says. "While the numbers are increasing, they are still very small."

Pancreatic cancer symptoms can be easily confused with those of other illness, but may include jaundice, belly or back pain, weight loss and poor appetite and nausea and vomiting, according to the American Cancer Society.

Lippman-Kuban stresses the importance of getting evaluated by a doctor if you develop any symptoms. "If I had not pursued the pain and the treatment, I don't know if I'd be here," she says.