Key Points about Pancreatic Cancer
- Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas, which produces enzymes to regulate digestion and insulin to control blood sugar.
- Doctors use imaging tests, biopsy, blood tests and physical exams to diagnose pancreatic cancer.
- Treatment for pancreatic cancer may include surgery, removal of the pancreas, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
The pancreas is an organ located in the lower part of your stomach. The pancreas releases enzymes for the digestive process and produces hormones that enable your body to regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that affects the pancreas.
Pancreatic cancer causes
Pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells of the pancreas develop mutations (changes) to their DNA, and then those abnormal cells multiply out of control.
Pancreatic cancer risk factors
Factors that can increase your risk for developing pancreatic cancer include:
- Being a smoker
- Being obese
- Being older than age 65
- Having a BRCA2 gene mutation
- Having a family history of pancreatic cancer
- Having a personal or family history of Lynch syndrome
- Having diabetes
- Having familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM)
- Having pancreatitis (chronic inflammation of the pancreas)
Pancreatic cancer symptoms
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer may include:
- Blood clots
- Dark-colored urine
- Decreased appetite
- Itchy skin
- Jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin)
- Light-colored stool
- Newly diagnosed diabetes, or existing diabetes that becomes increasingly difficult to manage
- Pain in your abdomen that radiates to your back
- Unintentional weight loss
Pancreatic cancer diagnosis
Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:
- Physical exam – your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
- Biopsy – in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small sample) from the suspicious area. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for cancer.
- Blood test – your doctor sends a sample of your blood to the laboratory for close analysis. Lab technicians can determine if certain tumor markers are present in your blood.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan – this type of imaging test provides a 3D image of the inside of the body that your doctor can use to determine the size and location of the cancer.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – this type of imaging test uses high-powered magnets to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Your doctor can closely examine these images to determine the size and location of the cancer.
Pancreatic cancer treatment
Depending on your personal health history, the extent of pancreatic cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:
- Surgery – you may need to undergo surgery to remove the cancerous area. Your surgeon will work to preserve as much surrounding healthy tissue as possible.
- Pancreatectomy – depending upon your exact situation, your doctor may recommend surgical removal of the entire pancreas. After you have your pancreas removed, you will need to take insulin and enzyme replacement for the rest of your life.
- Chemotherapy – you may need to also undergo chemotherapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically. During this treatment, medication is used to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be taken via an oral (by mouth) pill or intravenously (through a vein).
- Radiation therapy – this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
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.