Pancreatic cancer is a rapid growing cancer that most of the time has a poor prognosis. Around 48,960 people in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. Out of that number, 40,560 people die from pancreatic cancer. This type of cancer is the fourth leading type of cancer death and the five-year survival rate is around 7%. This means early detection and treatment is key with this type of cancer. This article will help you understand the symptoms, when to see a doctor, and options for treatment.
Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow in the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ that lies just behind the stomach. It secretes enzymes that assist with digestion and insulin that keeps your blood sugar in check. The exocrine cells secrete digestive enzymes and the endocrine cells secrete insulin. Pancreatic cancer is most common in the exocrine cells.
Types of Pancreatic Cancer
There are two different types of pancreatic cancer; exocrine cancer and endocrine cancer.
Exocrine cancer is the most common and starts in the cells that make up the lining of the ducts to the pancreas. The official name is, pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
The more rare type of pancreatic cancer starts in the cells that produce hormones. This affects the islet cells and is more formerly known as, islet cell cancer.
The cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, but there are risk factors that can increase your chances of getting pancreatic cancer. Just because you have a risk factor doesn’t mean you will positively get pancreatic cancer, they are just loosely associated with this condition. Risk factors include:
Cigarette Smoking. Smoking is thought to be one of the number one risk factors for pancreatic cancer. The heavier the smoker, the risk increases.
Family History and Genetics. In about 5 to 10 percent of pancreatic cancer cases, someone in the immediate family had pancreatic cancer.
Dietary Influences. People that take in too much fat and processed meats are at higher risk for pancreatic cancer. Also, low intake of selenium and lycopene may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Being Overweight. Obesity and lack of exercise may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
Diabetes. This disease doesn’t really increase the risk, but researchers have found a link between the two.
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer often do not appear until late stages of the disease. They include:
Severe pain in the upper abdomen that moves toward the back
Jaundice – yellow skin
Lack of appetite
Nausea and Vomiting
Pale and fatty stools
It is very important to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer early. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Your doctor will take a thorough history of your symptoms, a medical history, family medical history, and your lifestyle factors. After a good physical examination, your doctor may order the following tests:
Imaging. You may need imaging tests to look at your organs including; CT scan, MRI, and/or ultrasound. These will show abnormalities or masses.
Endoscopic Exam. The doctor uses and endoscope to look at your abdominal structures. A lighted tube is passed down your throat into your stomach. They can take pictures of your pancreas and take tissue for biopsy and testing.
ERCP. Another test is the, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP where the doctor uses a dye to look at your bile ducts during the endoscopy.
If you receive a confirmed diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the doctor will stage your disease. This will help with planning treatments and give you a prognosis. This is how pancreatic cancer is staged:
Blood Testing. The CA19 can give levels of the proteins from pancreatic cancer.
CT, MRI, and PET Scans. To see how far the cancer has spread in the body.
Laparoscopy. A minor surgery where the doctor can explore the abdomen to check for cancer spread.
The Stages of Pancreatic Cancer
Stage I. At this stage, cancer is still inside just the pancreas.
Stage II. Cancer is in the pancreas, but now spreading to close by organs and lymph nodes.
Stage III. Cancer is outside the pancreas, in major blood vessels, and lymph nodes.
Stage IV. Cancer is far beyond the pancreas and into other organs; lungs, liver, and abdominal lining.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer involves treatments including; surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and intense pain control. The treatments are:
There are a few different surgical procedures done for pancreatic cancer:
Whipple Procedure. Removal of head of pancreas, gallbladder, some stomach, small intestine, and the bile duct. The pancreas can still produce insulin and digestive enzymes.
Total Pancreatectomy. The entire pancreas is removed, some stomach, some small intestine, bile duct, gallbladder, spleen, and lymph nodes in the abdomen.
Distal Pancreatectomy. Pancreas and spleen are taken out.
Biliary Bypass. The gallbladder is removed and bile duct connected to the small intestine.
Endoscopic Stent. A stent is placed in the bile duct to help with drainage.
Radiation is directed at the cancerous areas to kill off cancer cells. It can be either external or internal. External just sends radiation beams at the part of the body that needs treatment. Internal injects radioactive “seeds” into the body near the area where the cancer is.
Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer is most often combined with radiation for the most effectiveness. Chemotherapy is given either by mouth or intravenously. It can also be directly placed into the abdominal cavity. For more severe stages, more than one chemotherapy drug will be given.
These drugs go directly to the abnormal cells and leave healthy cells alone. They can block the actual part of cancer cells that cause them to reproduce and grow.
Pancreatic cancer is very painful. When tumors grow and place pressure on the nerves near the pancreas, pain medication ceases to relieve the pain. Doctors can do direct injections into these nerves known as a, nerve block. They can also severe the nerves to the pancreas to stop the pain.
There are new clinical trials for pancreatic cancer treatment that may help increase the survival rate for this aggressive cancer. One of these is, biologic therapy. This will use your own immune cells to go out and attack damaged cancer cells. Your own immune cells are taken into the lab and made into specific attack cells for pancreatic cancer.
There are forms of alternative medicine that can help with symptoms of pancreatic cancer. To date, researchers have not found any effects on the actual cancer cells. Also, make sure you clear any alternative medicine with your doctor. Alternative medicine are:
Ayurvedic Medicine – Diet, herbs, meditation, breathing. Form of medicine from India
Pancreatic Cancer Prevention & Lifestyle Changes
Lifestyle changes and prevention of pancreatic cancer should include:
Quit Smoking. Smoking can increase the growth of cancer cells. If you are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, quit right away.
Eat Healthy. Pancreatic cancer causes weight loss. Much of this is due to pain. See a nutritionist to develop a diet that is easy to eat, yet nutritious for your body.
Reduce Stress. Lower your stress levels and try to stay positive. Find ways to relieve any anxiety and depression over your diagnosis. Try talking to someone about how you feel and try to do things that make you feel better.
If caught and treated early in the disease, prostate cancer has one of the highest survival rates among cancers to affects males.
Stage of Cancer
5 Year Survival Rate
Close to 100%
Cancer.net. (2014, November). Pancreatic Cancer: Statistics. Retrieved from Cancer.net: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/pancreatic-cancer/statistics
Mayo Clinic. (2014, November 22). Pancreatic Cancer: Definition. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pancreatic-cancer/basics/definition/con-20028153
National Cancer Institute. (2015, July 2). Pancreatic Cancer Treatment. Retrieved from National Cancer Institute: https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/patient/pancreatic-treatment-pdq#section/_162
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. (2015, August 8). Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Retrieved from PanCan: https://www.pancan.org/section-facing-pancreatic-cancer/learn-about-pan-cancer/treatment/complementary-and-alternative-therapies/
WebMD. (2015, April 26). Pancreatic Cancer. Retrieved from WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/cancer/pancreatic-cancer/digestive-diseases-pancreatic-cancer
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