Preventing pancreatic cancer, the third leading cause of cancer death

NORFOLK, Va. - November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.

According to the Eastern Virginia Medical School, it is estimated to be the second-leading cause of cancer death by 2020. Right now, it’s the third-leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

They said it’s an overlooked disease.

The pancreas is located behind the stomach. Its functions are to aid in digestion and to produce hormones that regulate blood sugar level.

Staff with EVMS said early cancer detection and treatment is often difficult, and the prognosis is very poor.

"One, it can present late, right," Dr. Marybeth Hughes, the Chief of Surgical Oncology, said. "Two, sometimes, I think its biology is more aggressive, too, than some of the other cancers. It tends to spread at a kind of smaller size.”

The school's cancer research center is working to find ways to increase early detection rates and new ways to treat it.

Related: Indiana boy battling cancer is asking for police patches from all over the country

They said Portsmouth and Suffolk are especially hard hit by the deadly cancer.

“About half of our population are African American individuals, and they do have a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. There may be environmental factors that we don’t know about," Dr. Hughes explained.

“Tobacco use is the most consistent risk factor for pancreatic cancer,” a release from the Centers for Disease Control stated. “About 20 percent of all pancreatic cancer cases are attributable to cigarette smoking.”

They also said men have a higher risk of developing the cancer compared to women, as well as African-Americans.

News 3 spoke with a Virginia Beach man who was told he only had four months to live after a diagnosis in 2016.

“It’s been a journey," Jim Monaco explained. "It’s been a rough road.”

He told us instead of listening to the original doctor, he went to the Cancer Centers of America for treatment.

“I still have my good days and I still have my bad days. Today is a relatively good day," Monaco said.

He told us he recently took a break from radiation treatments.

Monaco said the constant trips away became overwhelming but said things are okay right now.

“My oncologist told me that it’s angry. It’s flaring up. That’s it’s doing some stuff, but it’s not growing. It’s not invading any other spot. It’s just there and it’s like a storm brewing, and hopefully they can keep that storm under control," said the 58-year-old.

Monaco is taking about 20 pills a day right now.

He goes back to the doctor's later this month for a check-up.

An active martial arts instructor, Monaco told us he's not letting the disease slow him down.

“Bring it on, 'cause I’m ready to go. I’m a fighter," Monaco proclaimed.

The CDC said you might be able to reduce your risk of developing pancreatic cancer by avoiding smoking and tobacco products and maintaining a healthy body weight.