Pancreatic Cancer – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in the tissue of the pancreas. The pancreas is a large organ lying behind the lower part of the stomach. It makes and releases enzymes into the intestines that help digest food, especially fats. The pancreas also makes and releases insulin, which helps the body control blood sugar levels.
There are different types of pancreatic cancers. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type. Glucagonoma, insulinoma, islet cell tumor, and VIPoma are the rare types of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in women than in men.
What causes pancreatic cancer?
The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known to doctors and other experts. What is known is certain factors increase the risk for pancreatic cancer.
The following factors may increase the risk for pancreatic cancer:
- Obesity or overweight
- A diet containing high levels of fat
- Exposure to certain chemicals for a long time
- Long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis)
- The family history of pancreatic cancer
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
There are no symptoms in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. Symptoms may appear as the cancer advances. This means the cancer is most often advanced when it is first diagnosed.
The following symptoms may show up in an advanced stage of pancreatic cancer:
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
- A sudden increase in blood sugar level
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored stools
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
The doctor will perform a physical exam and review your symptoms and medical history. The doctor suspects cancer if he/she feels a lump (mass) during the exam.
The doctor may order the following tests for diagnosis of pancreatic cancer:
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Liver function tests
- Serum bilirubin
- CT scan of the abdomen
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Endoscopic ultrasound
- MRI of the abdomen
If tests confirm cancer, a biopsy of the pancreas may be done to find out the type of pancreatic cancer. The doctor will do some more tests to see how far the cancer has spread. These tests are called staging tests. Staging helps guide treatment and gives you an idea of what to expect.
How is pancreatic cancer treated?
Treatment for pancreatic cancer (adenocarcinoma, the main type) depends on the stage of cancer. Usually, treatment comprises surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.
Generally, surgery may be done if the tumor has not spread or has spread very little. Doctors may use chemotherapy or radiation therapy or both before or after surgery. This treatment approach works for very few people.
Doctors may recommend a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy when the tumor has not spread beyond the pancreas. This is recommended when the tumor cannot be surgically removed.
The doctor uses only chemotherapy when the tumor has spread to other organs such as the liver.
With advanced cancer, the goal of treatment will be to control and reduce pain and other symptoms.
This feature is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute the expert guidance of a doctor. We advise seeing a doctor if you have any health concerns.