What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer occurs within the tissues of the pancreas, which
is a vital endocrine organ located behind the stomach. The pancreas plays an
essential role in digestion by producing enzymes that the body needs to digest
fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
The pancreas also produces two important hormones: glucagon and
insulin. These hormones are responsible for controlling glucose (sugar)
metabolism. Insulin helps cells metabolize glucose to make energy and glucagon helps
raise glucose levels when they are too low.
Due to the location of the pancreas, pancreatic cancer may be
difficult to detect and is often diagnosed in more advanced stages of the
disease. This type of cancer is the fourth-leading
cause of cancer-related fatalities in the United States.
Causes of Pancreatic Cancer
The cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown. This type of cancer
occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow within the pancreas and form tumors.
Normally, healthy cells grow and die in moderate numbers. In the case of
cancer, there is an increased amount of abnormal cell production, and these
cells eventually take over the healthy cells.
Risk Factors for Developing Pancreatic
While the cause of this type of cancer is unknown, there are
certain risk factors that may increase your chances of developing pancreatic
cancer. You may be at an increased risk if you:
cigarettes — 30 percent of cancer cases are related to cigarette smoking
few fruits and vegetables
diets high in fat content
heavy amounts of alcohol
with pesticides and chemicals
chronic inflammation of the pancreas
a family history of pancreatic cancer or certain genetic disorders that have
been linked to this type of cancer
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t exhibit symptoms until it reaches
the advanced stages of the disease. Some of the most common symptoms can be
subtle. They include:
(stomach) or lower back pain
(yellow skin and eyes)
Pancreatic cancer that spreads may worsen preexisting symptoms.
Diagnosis and Staging
Early diagnosis significantly increases the chances of recovery.
That’s why it’s best to visit your doctor if you’re experiencing any symptoms
that won’t go away or recur regularly.
To make a diagnosis, your doctor will review your symptoms and
medical history. They will order one or more tests to check for pancreatic
cancer, such as:
or MRI scans to get a complete and detailed image of your pancreas
in which a thin, flexible tube with a camera attached is inserted down into the
stomach to obtain images of the pancreas
- biopsy, or tissue sample, of
tests to detect if tumor marker CA 19-9 is present, which can indicate
Once a diagnosis has been made, your doctor will assign a stage
based on the test results:
1: tumors exist in the pancreas only
2: tumors have spread to nearby abdominal tissues or lymph nodes
3: the cancer has spread to major blood vessels and lymph nodes
4: tumors have spread to other organs, such as the liver
Treating Pancreatic Cancer
Treatment depends on the stage of cancer. Treatment has two
goals: to kill cancerous cells and to prevent the spread of the disease. Weight
loss, bowel obstruction, abdominal pain, and liver failure are among the most
common complications during pancreatic cancer treatment.
If the tumor has remained confined to the pancreas, surgery may
be recommended — a final call on whether surgery is an option will be based on
the exact location of the cancer. If the tumor is confined to the head and neck
of the pancreas, a procedure called the Whipple procedure
(pancreaticoduodenectomy) can be done. In this procedure, the first part, or the
“head” of the pancreas and about 20 percent of the “body,” or the second part,
are removed. The bottom half of the bile duct and the first part of the
intestine are also removed. In a modified version of this surgery, a part of
the stomach is removed.
Other treatment options must be explored once the cancer spreads
outside of the pancreas. Radiation therapy utilizes X-rays and
other high-energy beams to kill the cancer cells.
In some cases, your doctor might combine other treatments with chemo, which uses cancer-killing drugs
to help prevent future growth of cancer cells.
Many patients combine alternative measures with traditional
medical treatments. Be sure to consult your doctor before beginning alternative
therapies as these measures may interfere with certain medications.
Yoga, meditation, and light exercise might promote a sense of well-being
and make you feel better during treatment.
Outlook for Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer — unfortunately,
many patients don’t receive a diagnosis until it has spread outside of the
pancreas. Following all of your doctor’s recommendations will help improve your
chances of recovery and survival. You may also consider:
enzyme supplements to improve digestion
follow-up care, even if the cancer is successfully removed