Key Points about Pancreatic Cancer
- Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas, which is an abdominal organ that produces blood sugar-regulating hormones and aids in digestion.
- Imaging tests, biopsy and/or blood tests are used to diagnose pancreatic cancer.
- Treatment for pancreatic cancer typically involves a combination of surgery to remove the cancerous cells and therapies to destroy any remaining cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that affects the cells of your pancreas, an organ in your abdomen located behind your stomach. The pancreas helps your body digest food and produces hormones that manage blood sugar.
Pancreatic cancer causes
Cancer occurs when some types of cells start to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells grow more quickly than healthy cells, leading to the formation of a mass.
Pancreatic cancer risk factors
Factors that can increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer include:
- Being a smoker
- Being obese
- Being over age 65
- Having a family history of pancreatic cancer
- Having specific inherited genes, such as the breast cancer 2 (BRCA2) gene, Lynch syndrome or familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
- Having diabetes
- Having pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Pancreatic cancer symptoms
Many people with early-stage pancreatic cancer won’t experience any symptoms. When they do occur in later stages of the disease, signs and symptoms can include:
- Blood clots
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- Light-colored stools
- Loss of appetite
- Newly diagnosed diabetes, or existing uncontrolled diabetes
- Pain that radiates from your abdomen to your back
- Unintentional weight loss
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
Pancreatic cancer diagnosis
Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer:
- Imaging tests. Your doctor may order an imaging test – such as ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) scan – to obtain detailed images of your internal organs and check for masses.
- Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). In this test, your specialist uses an endoscope (long, flexible tube) with a camera attached to obtain images of your pancreas.
- Biopsy. Your specialist removes a small tissue sample (biopsy) from your pancreas for close analysis in the lab.
- Blood test. Your specialist may use a blood test to check your blood for specific proteins (tumor markers) shed by pancreatic cancer cells.
Pancreatic cancer treatment
Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for pancreatic cancer:
- Surgery to remove tumors. If possible, your specialist will perform a surgical procedure to remove only the cancerous tumors.
- Surgery to remove the pancreas. If the cancer is more advanced and/or widespread, your specialist may need to perform surgery to remove your pancreas. This procedure is known as a total pancreatectomy. Removal of the spleen occurs in some cases.
- Chemotherapy. This treatment involves using medications – either oral (by mouth) or intravenous (by vein) – to destroy cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-energy beams – such as X-ray or protons – to destroy cancerous cells. People typically have to undergo several rounds of radiation therapy treatment for results.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.