Your pancreas is an unassuming organ you may not give much thought to. This organ is about six inches long and is located in your abdomen, behind your stomach. As with other cancers, pancreatic cancer occurs when cells go haywire and have uncontrolled growth. While pancreatic cancer accounts for only about 3% of cancers diagnosed in the United States, the American Cancer Society predicts that around 57,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019. Additionally, about 46,000 Americans will die from it. Since prevention and early diagnosis are key to survival, here are some facts you should know about pancreatic cancer.
10. Types of Pancreatic Cancer
The two main types of cells in the pancreas are exocrine cells and endocrine cells. Exocrine cells make up most of the cells in your pancreas. As part of the exocrine gland, their job is to create the pancreatic enzymes that help you digest your food. A smaller number of cells in the pancreas are the endocrine cells, which are involved in forming hormones such as insulin and glucagon. Exocrine cancers are the most common types of pancreatic cancers. Adenocarcinomas that start in the pancreatic ducts account for the majority of pancreatic cancers. Endocrine pancreatic cancers, often called islet cell tumors or NETs, are far less common.
9. Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be difficult to distinguish from symptoms of other diseases. Unfortunately, this means that pancreatic cancers are not often caught in the early stages. Signs of pancreatic cancer include jaundice or yellowing of the skin, urine that is dark in color, pale and greasy stools, weight loss, and abdominal pain. Painful blood clots called deep vein thromboses may form in a leg. If the bile duct is blocked, your gall bladder may become enlarged, forming a bump under your rib cage.
8. Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Persons over the age of 65 have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Men and those of African American descent are slightly more likely to acquire this cancer. Certain diseases such as pancreatitis, diabetes, liver cirrhosis, and stomach ulcers may increase the likelihood of an individual developing pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer may also be linked to genetics. While many of these risk factors are uncontrollable, others are within your ability to prevent. Pancreatic cancer risk is higher for smokers, overweight individuals, and those who are exposed to certain industrial chemicals.
7. Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer
If pancreatic cancer is suspected, your physician will conduct a physical exam and take your medical history. Your physician will probably order imaging tests such as a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound. These tests allow your physician to visualize your pancreas, blood vessels, and bile ducts. Your doctor may use an endoscope to further inspect your bile ducts. If jaundice is present, liver function tests may be done to determine the origin of the jaundice. Blood tests for the tumor marker CA 19-9 are helpful in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. If all of these tests point to pancreatic cancer, a biopsy may be necessary. This requires removing a small portion of pancreatic tissue for testing.
6. Surgery for Pancreatic Cancer
Treatment for pancreatic surgery consists of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or any combination of the three. When considering surgery, a staging laparoscopy will help determine which type of surgery is needed. Pancreatic cancer has often spread to other parts of the body by the time it is diagnosed. Therefore, it is often too late to completely remove the cancer through surgery. The Whipple procedure is a surgery to remove the head of the pancreas and is the most common operation for exocrine pancreatic cancer. Less common surgeries are to remove only the tail of the pancreas or the entire pancreas. If the cancer is too widespread to be completely eradicated, palliative surgery is an option. In this case, the cancer is not completely removed, but enough is removed to decrease pain.
5. Chemotherapy for Pancreatic Cancer
Chemotherapy can be beneficial for exocrine pancreatic cancer. Used before surgery, it can help to shrink tumors before removing them. After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation together can kill any remaining tumor cells to prevent the return of the cancer. If surgery is not an option, chemotherapy may be used in place of an operation. Chemotherapy is most beneficial when two or more chemo drugs are given together.
4. Medications for Pancreatic Cancer
Chemotherapy can be useful for the treatment of exocrine cancers. But other medications are used to treat endocrine pancreatic cancers that can’t be surgically removed. Some of these drugs resemble a hormone called somatostatin. They prevent the islet cell tumors from releasing hormones. This is helpful for relieving pain and other cancer symptoms. Chemotherapy for neuroendocrine tumors can include the use of targeted drugs. These drugs attack tumor cells in specific ways to prevent their growth. Diazoxide blocks the release of insulin from the pancreas and can be helpful in neuroendocrine cancer. Proton pump inhibitors can prevent painful stomach ulcers in certain pancreatic cancer patients.
3. Prognosis for Pancreatic Cancer
The survival rates for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are sadly discouraging. This is due to the fact that it is often detected only after spreading to other parts of the body. The one-year survival rate is 20%, and the five-year survival rate is a disappointing 7%. In general, the smaller the tumors, the greater the chance of survival.
2. Prevention of Pancreatic Cancer
While pancreatic cancer is not entirely preventable, there are certain risk factors that you can avoid. Give yourself the best chance for a long and healthy life by not smoking. Keep yourself at a healthy weight. Give your body plenty of exercise. Fuel your body with nutritious whole foods including leafy greens, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Maintain a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5-24.9. Avoid excessive use of alcohol, as alcohol may contribute to cancer risk or to disease resulting in cancer. Avoid exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in your workplace.
1. Research into Pancreatic Cancer
Researchers are investigating causes of, diagnosis of, and treatment for pancreatic cancer. Certain genes such as BRCA2 and p16 are indicators of risk for developing pancreatic cancer. The Whipple procedure to remove pancreatic cancer is a long and difficult surgery. Researchers are investigating laparoscopic surgeries to remove the tumors. This would result in a quicker patient recovery time. Targeted therapies are those that attack only specific sites on cancer tumors. These therapies tend to have fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. Immune therapy is another type of therapy. Immunotherapy boosts a patient’s immune system to better enable them to fight off the cancer cells.