Pancreatic Cancer

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer occurs within the tissues of the pancreas, a vital organ that is 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 that are responsible for controlling glucose (sugar) metabolism. Insulin is a hormone that helps cell metabolize glucose to make energy and glucagon, which helps raise glucose levels when they are too low.

Due to the location of the pancreas, this type of cancer may be difficult to detect and is often diagnosed in more advanced stages of the disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, this type of cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related fatalities in the United States (NIH, 2012) .

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 Cancer

While the cause of this type of cancer is unknown, there are certain risk factors that may increase your chances of developing pancreatic cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), you may be at an increased risk if you:

  • smoke cigarettes—30 percent of cancer cases are related to cigarette smoking
  • are obese
  • don’t exercise regularly
  • eat few fruits and vegetables
  • eat diets high in fat content
  • drink heavy amounts of alcohol
  • have diabetes
  • work with pesticides and chemicals
  • have chronic inflammation of pancreas
  • have liver damage
  • are African American
  • have a family history of pancreatic cancer or certain genetic disorders that have been linked to this type of cancer (ACS, 2011)

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, and they include:

  • loss of appetite
  • unintentional weight loss
  • abdominal and lower back pain
  • blood clots
  • jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
  • depression

Diagnosis and Staging

Early diagnosis significantly increases the chances of recovery. That’s why it is best to visit a doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms that won’t go away or recur regularly.

To make a diagnosis, the doctor will review an individual’s symptoms and medical history, and will perform one or more tests to check for pancreatic cancer such as:

  • computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to get a complete and detailed image of the pancreas
  • an endoscopic ultrasound (use of high frequency sound waves), in which a thin, flexible tube with a camera attached in inserted down into the stomach to obtain images of the pancreas
  • biopsy of a tissue sample from the pancreas
  • certain blood tests can also detect if the tumor marker CA 19-9 is present, which can indicate pancreatic cancer

Once a diagnosis has been made, the doctor will assign a stage based on the test results:

  • Stage I: tumors exist in the pancreas only
  • Stage II: tumors have spread to nearby abdominal tissues or lymph nodes
  • Stage III: the cancer has spread to major blood vessels and lymph nodes
  • Stage IV: 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.

Surgery

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 (the “head”) of the pancreas and about 20 percent of the “body” are removed, as are the bottom half of the bile duct and the first part of the intestine. In a modified version of this surgery, a part of the stomach is removed.

Radiation Therapy

However, other treatment measures 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.

Chemotherapy

In some cases, your doctor might combine this treatment with chemo, which uses cancer-killing drugs to help prevent future growth of cancer cells.

Alternative Measures

Cancer is frightening and many patients combine alternative measures with medical treatment. Be sure to consult your doctor before beginning alternative therapies as these measures may interfere with medications that have been prescribed.

Yoga, meditation, and light exercise might promote a sense of well-being and make you feel better during treatment

Possible Complications

Pancreatic cancer that spreads may worsen preexisting symptoms. Some patients may begin to feel symptoms for the first time. Weight loss, bowel obstruction, abdominal pain, and jaundice are among the most common complications during pancreatic cancer 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. Follow all your doctor’s recommendations to help improve your chances of recovery and survival. You may also consider:

  • pancreatic enzyme supplements to improve digestion
  • pain medications
  • regular follow-up care, even if the cancer is successfully removed
Was this article helpful? Yes No

Thank you.

Your message has been sent.

We're sorry, an error occurred.

We are unable to collect your feedback at this time. However, your feedback is important to us. Please try again later.

Article Sources:

More on Healthline

Timeline of an Anaphylactic Reaction
Timeline of an Anaphylactic Reaction
From first exposure to life-threatening complications, learn how quickly an allergy attack can escalate and why it can become life threatening.
Seasonal Allergies and COPD: Tips to Avoid Complications
Seasonal Allergies and COPD: Tips to Avoid Complications
For COPD patients, allergies pose the risk of serious complications. Learn some basic tips for avoiding allergy-related complications of COPD in this slideshow.
Easy Ways to Conceal an Epinephrine Shot
Easy Ways to Conceal an Epinephrine Shot
Learn how to discreetly carry your epinephrine autoinjectors safely and discreetly. It’s easier than you think to keep your shots on hand when you’re on the go.
The Best Multiple Sclerosis iPhone and Android Apps of the Year
The Best Multiple Sclerosis iPhone and Android Apps of the Year
These best multiple sclerosis apps provide helpful information and tools to keep track of your symptoms, including medication reminders.
Common Asthma Triggers and How to Avoid Them
Common Asthma Triggers and How to Avoid Them
Learn about some of the most common triggers for asthma, as well as measures you can take to minimize your risk of exposure, symptoms, and flares.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement