Pancreatic Cancer

What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a cancer that is in the pancreas. Your pancreas rests in your abdomen, behind the stomach. It secretes enzymes to aid in digestion and it helps to regulate the metabolism of sugars.

Signs of pancreatic cancer may not appear until it’s already advanced, making complete surgical removal impossible. This makes pancreatic cancer one of the leading causes of cancer-related death.

Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer don’t often appear until later stages of the disease. Some signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Upper abdominal pain that may radiate to your back
  • Yellowing of your skin your eyes (jaundice)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Depression
  • Blood clots

Pancreatic cancer occurs when the DNA of cells in your pancreas mutate. The mutations cause the cells to grow uncontrollably and to continue living after normal cells would die. The accumulated cells can form a tumor.

Most pancreatic cancer begins in the ducts of the pancreas. This cancer is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma or pancreatic exocrine cancer.

Occasionally, pancreatic cancer can form in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. This is islet cell cancer or pancreatic endocrine cancer.

Factors that may increase the chances of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Being overweight
  • Pancreatitis
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of cancer
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Smoking
  • African-Americans are at greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer

Your doctor can test for pancreatic cancer using:

  • Imaging tests, such as:
    • Ultrasound
    • CT scan
    • MRI
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • A tissue sample, collected during EUS or ERCP or using a needle inserted into the pancreas

Your doctor can determine the stage of the cancer using:

  • A laparoscopy.
  • Imaging tests, such as:
    • CT scans
    • MRI
  • Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS)

Stages of pancreatic cancer

Using information from staging tests, your doctor assigns your pancreatic cancer a stage. The stages of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Stage I. Cancer is confined to the pancreas
  • Stage II. Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to nearby tissues and organs and may have spread to the lymph nodes
  • Stage III. Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to the major blood vessels around the pancreas and may have spread to the lymph nodes
  • Stage IV. Cancer has spread to distant sites beyond the pancreas, such as the liver, lungs and the lining that surrounds your abdominal organs (peritoneum)

Treatment will depend on the staging of your pancreatic cancer. Possible treatment options include:

  • Surgery can be an option if the cancer hasn’t spread outside the pancreas. Possible surgeries include:
    • The Whipple procedure, which removes the head of the pancreas and a portion of the small intestine
    • Surgery for tumors in the body and tail of the pancreas
  • Radiation therapy may be recommended in combination with other treatments or when your cancer can’t be treated surgically
  • Chemotherapy is typically used to treat cancer that has spread to nearby organs and not to distant regions of the body
  • Targeted drug therapy uses drugs to attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapy is often used in combination with chemotherapy in advanced cases
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