Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is a purely secretory organ. This means that it synthesizes the substances that the body needs and releases them into the bloodstream. The pancreas is located behind the stomach and in front of the spine, being about the size of a hand. The pancreatic juice, which has an important role in the digestive process, flows through a special channel in the duodena.

The pancreas is also a very important endocrine gland. When insulin is not produced, diabetes occurs. Common health problems include pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. In the year 2017, approximately 54,000 people in the US have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In the UK, pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common type of cancer.


Pancreatic Cancer  Overview & Facts

Pancreatic cancer is located mainly in the region of the head of this organ. Pancreatic cancer can be defined as a medical condition in which the cells in the body start to grow out of control. To be more precise, the cells in the pancreas begin got divide without stopping, form lumps, and can even spread onto the surrounding tissue, in other words, they metastasize.

Pancreatic cancer spreads fast to the other organs, despite the fact that there is a slow progression in the early stages. This means that there is a narrow window for diagnosis and prevention of the malady. If the tumor stays in one place, then it is benign. If it does not, then it is malignant. Malignant tumors are very dangerous as they can cause death.

There are many types of cancers that start in the pancreas, as follows: exocrine pancreatic cancers and endocrine pancreatic cancers.

Exocrine cancers originate in the exocrine pancreas cells. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma: Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas is a disease that accounts for about 90% of cases. Exocrine cancer, as it is commonly referred to, begins in the exocrine gland, that is, in the ducts of the pancreas. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma typically evolves from the cells that produce the digestive enzymes.
  • Acinar Cell Carcinoma: This is a very rare pancreatic neoplasm. As the name suggests, the disease develops in the acinar cells, which are located at the end of the pancreatic ducts. The tumors are so rare that they can be found in 1% of patients.
  • Ampullary cancer: Ampullary carcinoma develops in the Ampulla Vater, the place where the bile and the pancreatic ducts intersect.

Endocrine cancers are the result of an abnormal division of the endocrine cells in the pancreas. They can be benign or malign. In simpler terms, it can or it cannot be cancer. Malignant tumors are predisposed to being aggressive in development.

Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Gastrinoma: This uncommon endocrine cancer affects the pancreas or duodenum. The tumor produces gastrin and it is usually inherited as part of a genetic syndrome that is called Zollinger-Ellison.
  • Insulinoma: Insulinoma is characterized by an excessive production of insulin. Generally speaking, the tumors are small and not easy to diagnose.

It must be noted that pancreatic cancer has high mortality rates. Very few people survive even if the cancer is diagnosed in time.


Symptoms & Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer show only when the disease is in an advanced state. Symptoms that can draw attention are:

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Pain in the upper stomach, which travels all the way to the back
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach bloating
  • Swelling of arm or leg due to blood clot
  • Constipation
  • Repulsion towards fatty foods

Pancreatic tumors are not asymptomatic. This is only a myth. Taken one by one, the manifestations could mean various medical conditions. Nonetheless, people who experience these symptoms should schedule an appointment with a GP. Patients should document the signs of illness and report them to their treating physician.

Naturally, the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer depends on the symptoms listed earlier. The matter of the fact is that pancreatic cancer is hard to diagnose. The reason for this is that the symptoms are very similar to other conditions. If the medical practitioner suspects that there is something serious, they will order multiple tests. The GP needs information from multiple tests, such as:

  • Imaging tests: Pancreatic cancer is identified with the help of imaging tests, like CT, MRI, and PET. These examinations allow the doctor to see the internal organs. Imaging is necessary for initial diagnosis and staging, but also for determining the proper course of treatment.
  • Blood tests: Sometimes, it suffices to perform blood tests. The level of specific proteins in the blood escalates. In medical terminology, they are called tumor markers. Soon, a new blood test will be available to detect the diseases in its early stages.
  • Laparoscopy: Diagnostic laparoscopy is used in order to examine the organs inside the abdomen. New and advanced technology has been developed to allow the surgeon to exclude the possibility of a metastatic disease.
  • Biopsy: a piece of tissue is removed from the pancreas. What the surgeon de is inset a thin needle through the skin right above the stomach and into the pancreas.

Detecting pancreatic cancer early is difficult, if not impossible. Due to the fact that the organ is located deep inside the body, the abnormal growths cannot be felt or seen during physical exams. As for the diagnostic tests, none of them are completely reliable. As a rule, doctors confuse pancreatic cancer with other diseases.

People who come from families with a high risk of pancreatic cancer should get tested. Owing to advances in medicine, at present there are assessments that allow people to determine if they are likely to develop the malady.


Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

By stage, it is understood how large the tumor is and how far it has spread. By means of testing, medical practitioners are able not only to identify the disease, but also to determine the stage of the pancreatic cancer. This is the classification used by doctors:

  • Stage 1: The malignant growth can be found only in the pancreas and it has not invaded the deeper tissues. As a rule, the tumor is no bigger than 4 centimeters.
  • Stage 2: The cancer begins to spread beyond the pancreas, taking over the surrounding tissues. The lymph nodes are not affected.
  • Stage 3: The lump grows beyond the pancreas, occupying important blood vessels. There is a chance that the pancreatic cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4: Cancer cells are carried to other parts of the body. This means that other organs are invaded. It may be called advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer: Treatment & Care

Regrettably, pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal ones. There is no cure for pancreatic cancer. There are treatments available for people who suffer from this disease but the odds are against them. To be more precise, individuals who are diagnosed with this medical condition do not live more than a year. There is hope that someday a cure will be found. However, at the time being they are not capable of understanding the nature of the tumor. The only thing that physicians can do is help people fight off the illness.

Treatment for pancreatic cancer includes:

1. Surgery

Patients undergo the Whipple procedure, or pancreaticoduodenectomy. It is a surgical procedure that entails removing the head of the pancreas. It is important to highlight the fact that not all patients are eligible for this treatment. The surgical procedure is recommended for people whose tumors have not spread to the surrounding tissues. Palliative surgery is very common as well. What happens is that a stent is inserted to get around blocked areas in the ducts.

2. Chemotherapy and Radiation

Pancreatic cancer sufferers are administered drugs that are meant to kill the cancer cells. The medications work throughout the body, which is the reason why they are so effective. Patients also undergo radiation therapy. High-energy radiation is used to shrink the tumor and, of course, attack the cancer cells. Chemotherapy and radiation are typically combined for optimal results.

3. Palliative Care

Caring for people who have pancreatic cancer is realized within an orderly environment. Oncologists, namely the healthcare professionals who specialize in the treatment of carcinomas, concentrate all their attention on providing patients relief from burdensome symptoms and treatment side effects. They have many challenges to overcome, though. Oncologists need to accurately evaluate the impact of the symptoms on the patients’ quality of life. What is more, they are required to treat people as a whole since pancreatic cancer is a set of maladies.


What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

Until this day, scientists have no idea what the cause of pancreatic cancer is. This basically translates into the fact that they are unable to tell why a person develops the lethal disease. What doctors know is that the malignant growth is due to corruption of the DNA. In medical terms, it is referred to as mutations.

The DNA of the cells of the internal organ is affected and the outcome is that they begin to divide out of control. It is believed that these mutations are genetically inherited. If parents have the cancer gene, then the children will have it as well. When many members of the family have the disease, it is called familial pancreatic cancer.

There are many elements that increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Smoking, corpulence, excessive alcohol consumption, age, and gender are only a few of them. According to scientific evidence, a greater number of men than women are diagnosed with this illness. Practically, they more at risk of developing the medical condition.


How to Prevent Pancreatic Cancer

As surprising as it may seem, it is possible to reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. It is important to mention that none of the methods that will be enumerated here are proven to defeat cancer. Nonetheless, they may reduce the risk of having it.

1. Keeping A Healthy Weight

There is a strong connection between weight and pancreatic cancer. More specifically, overweight and the lack of physical activity lead to insulin resistance, type II diabetes, and other maladies. An abnormal body weight can, thus, increase the person’s chances of developing cancer. It is important for individuals to get physical exercise and maintain a healthy body weight.

2. Avoiding Toxic Chemicals

Another way to reduce the chances of getting pancreatic cancer is to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals. Certain compounds, like heavy metal, are known to cause malignant growths. This is the reason why it is best to avoid them altogether.

3. Ceasing To Smoke

While there is no proof supporting the fact that tobacco is responsible for the diseases, pancreatic cancer has been discovered in a number of people that smoke. People who are unable to give up this bad habit need to ask their doctors for aid and advice.


Pancreatic Cancer Research

Pancreatic cancer has always managed to grab the attention of researchers. As mentioned earlier, experts do not have a good understanding of this illness. What they have managed to realize until now is understand that it is mostly a matter of genetics. Simply put, they have very few information on the matter. The good news is that research is till carried out. Medical experts are struggling to find reliable methods of diagnosis and, unquestionably, find a cure.

Immunotherapy is largely viewed as the star treatment of pancreatic treatment. Parts of the immune system are used in order to fight against the challenging disease. In clinical trials, immunotherapy has demonstrated positive results. It is not thus surprising that this approach is highly favored.

Equally important is mentioning that new medications are tested. These drugs are supposed to kill the abnormal cells and decrease the size of the tumor. One such example is represented by demcizumab. If the new therapy will provide solid results, that will be determined only after performing additional tests.

The fact is that there is hope for cancer patients as researchers will not stop until a cure is found.

Last updated on March 2nd, 2018

Chris Riley

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