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Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment


The pancreas is a small organ that sits just behind the stomach. It plays an important role in digestion, making enzymes that help break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats so that these nutrients can be absorbed within the small intestine. The pancreas also makes insulin and other hormones that control blood sugar levels throughout the body. Insulin helps your cells absorb sugar to be used as fuel.

Pancreatic cancer develops when duct cells within the pancreas develop gene mutations that make them grow out of control, forming a tumor. This cancer is often hard to treat and leads to a poor outlook. However, treating pancreatic cancer quickly with new treatments may help people with this condition have a better outcome.

Who gets Pancreatic Cancer?

Experts estimate that more than 62,000 U.S. adults will develop pancreatic cancer in 2022. In 2017, nearly 450,000 cases were diagnosed across the globe.

Pancreatic cancer becomes more common with age. About nine out of ten people with this condition are at least 55 years old.

People with certain risk factors also have a higher chance of developing this disease. You may be more at risk if you:

  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Are overweight
  • Work in the dry cleaning or metalworking industry and are often exposed to chemicals
  • Have been diagnosed with conditions affecting the pancreas, such as diabetes or chronic pancreatitis
  • Have an H. pylori infection (a type of stomach infection)
  • Are living with certain genetic conditions, including multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, or a familial cancer syndrome that increases cancer risk
  • Have family members with chronic pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer

It is important to note that most people with these risk factors will not develop pancreatic cancer. Additionally, some people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer without having any risk factors.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

This condition usually doesn’t cause symptoms right away, which can make it hard to detect at the early stages. Additionally, many symptoms may not be very noticeable even when they do exist.

Pancreatic cancer symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes)
  • Abdominal pain or back pain
  • Weakness or tiredness
  • Itching
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Light-colored stool
  • Diabetes

Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

Several tests can help doctors find pancreatic cancer. If your doctor thinks this condition may be a possibility, they may recommend blood tests that analyze liver function or measure levels of pancreatic enzymes like amylase and lipase. Additionally, pancreatic tumors often make a protein called CA19-9, which can be detected with a blood test. Imaging tests such as a CT scan or MRI can also help your doctor see any possible tumors.

During the process of diagnosis, your doctor will also determine the pancreatic cancer stage — that is, how far within the body the cancer has spread.

Your doctor will also determine what type of pancreatic cancer you have. This is based on which types of cells have become cancerous. Most pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors, which form from the cells in the pancreas that make enzymes. Of these tumors, adenocarcinomas are the most common. Rarely, pancreatic cancer may consist of a neuroendocrine tumor or NET.

Knowing the cancer stage and type helps determine which treatments may be most useful.

Pancreatic Cancer treatment options

Pancreatic tumors that haven’t yet spread can be treated with surgery. During this procedure, some or all of the pancreas may be removed, and nearby tissues may also be taken out if cancer has spread there. If surgery is an option, the tumor is more likely to be treatable. However, some tumors may have started growing into nearby blood vessels or organs and can’t be surgically removed.

Doctors may recommend going through chemotherapy with medications like 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) or gemcitabine, which destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing. Targeted therapy drugs, which can recognize and attack cancer cells, may also be an option.

Some people with pancreatic cancer may need radiation therapy, in which high-energy x-rays are used to kill cancer cells.

Palliative care is also an important part of pancreatic cancer treatment. This type of care can be used on its own or along with other treatments that aim to kill the cancer. Palliative care includes medications or procedures that help relieve symptoms like pain. It can help improve your quality of life while living with and treating pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer outlook

Most people with pancreatic cancer don’t have a good prognosis (outlook). This disease is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths.

Pancreatic cancer survival rates are based on how far the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis:

  • When cancer is only located within the pancreas, about 44% of people will live for five years or more.
  • When cancer cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes, about 15% of people will live at least five years.
  • When pancreatic cancer has metastasized (spread to more distant locations in the body), about 3% of people will live for five years.

However, there are many other factors that also influence prognosis. You may be more likely to have a better or worse outcome based on things like your overall health, age, sex, size of your tumor, whether you have back pain, and levels of CA19-9.

To find out whether you have pancreatic cancer or learn more about treatment and survival rates, talk to your healthcare team. Your doctors can help you understand what to expect based on your individual characteristics and can help guide you towards the treatment plan that is most likely to help.

References

Cancer Stat Facts: Pancreatic Cancer. National Cancer Institute. https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/pancreas.html

How Does the Pancreas Work? InformedHealth.org. Updated September 6, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279306/

Pancreatic Cancer. MedlinePlus. Updated November 13, 2019. https://medlineplus.gov/pancreaticcancer.html

Pancreatic Cancer. StatPearls. Updated January 21, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518996/

Pancreatic Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ)-Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. Updated December 11, 2020. https://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/patient/pancreatic-treatment-pdq

The Global Burden of Pancreatic Cancer. Archives of Medical Science. May 4, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7286317/

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