Pancreatic cancer is cancer that begins in the tissue of the pancreas, which is an organ that resides horizontally behind the bottom half of your stomach. The pancreas releases and controls enzymes that aid in digestion and hormones that can help you control your blood sugar. This type of cancer is usually very rapid and spreads to other organs. It is rarely detected early. For those with a history of pancreatic cancer or other cancers, certain screenings and tests might help to find this problem as early as possible. Diabetes is a sign of pancreatic cancer, especially if it comes with unexplained weight loss, jaundice or pain in the abdomen that spreads to the back.
Pancreatic cancer happens when the cells in your pancreas develop mutations within their make-up or damaged DNA. These mutations cause cells to grow uncontrollably and live on past the lifespan of the cell. These cells accumulate and form cancer. Most pancreatic cancer begins in the cells of the ducts of the pancreas. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma or pancreatic exocrine cancer are produced in the hormone cells. This cancer is referred to as islet cell tumors, pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, or pancreatic endocrine cancer.
At this time, it is unknown why pancreatic cancer develops or if certain triggers play a role with an increased risk of developing this cancer. While some doctors do link smoking to an increased risk, many have no explanation.
What are the risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer?
Because this cancer is rouge and there are not many signs or pre-symptoms, these are the risk factors thought to be connected or linked in some way.
- Older age; many people over sixty-five are affected.
- Smoking in any form, including pipe, cigar, and chew.
- A family history of pancreatic cancer or other types of cancer.
- Genetic syndromes that can increase this risk are the BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome, and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma syndrome.
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas or pancreatitis.
In some studies, it was indicated that the combination of smoking, long-term uncontrolled diabetes, and poor diet and lifestyle increase the overall risk of cancer beyond any of these factors listed could alone.
What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
This cancer is often known as a silent killer because symptoms do not appear or reveal themselves until the cancer has advanced and possibly spread. These are the most common symptoms:
- Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, or jaundice.
- Blood clots
- New on-set diabetes
- Loss of appetite or unintended or explained weight loss
- Pain in the upper abdomen that radiates or moves to your back
Are there any complications that can arise from pancreatic cancer?
Yes. As the cancer advances, it can cause a myriad of complications and medical issues. Some of these are:
- Jaundice which occurs because the cancer blocks the liver’s bile duct. Signs of this issue would include yellow skin or eyes, dark-colored urine, and pale or light-colored stools. Jaundice does not usually cause abdominal pain. Your doctor may recommend that a plastic or metal ‘tube’ be inserted into your bile duct to help hold it open. This is done by a procedure called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP. During this procedure, the endoscope is put into your throat and then stomach and into the upper side of your small intestine. A dye is then injected, and a catheter or hollow tube is passed through the endoscope and images are taken.
- -Weight loss can be caused by many conditions and illnesses but is a common symptom of pancreatic cancer. Many facets of the disease could cause the weight loss including the cancer itself, nausea and vomiting, or treatments being done that make it harder to eat and digest food. Or your body may have a harder time processing and absorbing nutrients from food because your pancreas is not helping your body function correctly. Your doctor may suggest a pancreatic enzyme supplement to help with your digestion and help to maintain your weight by adding in extra calories where ever you can, however, you can.
- Bowel obstructions happen because of the tumors formed in the bile ducts of the pancreas cause pressure and abnormal growth and pressure that pushes on the first part of the duodenum, or small intestine. This can block digested food from entering your intestines, which is a very painful condition. Your doctor may recommend a stent be placed to help keep the small intestine opened, or surgical intervention may be needed to attach your stomach to a lower point in your intestines to bypass the cancer.
- Pain is a loud side effect that always demands to be heard. Any growing tumor can press on surrounding nerves and cause pain to the site. Pancreatic cancer can cause abdominal pain that can become severe. Pain medications can be prescribed for this and can help ease the discomfort. Radiation therapy may stop tumor growth temporarily and provide some relief. In severe cases, your doctor may recommend a procedure that stops the nerves from feeling the pain being caused. This is done by injecting alcohol into the nerves, which stops the signals from the brain identifying the pain in the abdomen.
Is there any way I can prevent pancreatic cancer?
There are ways that you can increase your overall health, which will decrease your risk of pancreatic cancer. They are:
- Choosing a healthy diet that is full of rich colors and a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can help reduce your risk for cancer.
- Maintaining a healthy weight and an active lifestyle. If you are overweight and need to lose some, plan to do it slowly with steady progression. Most doctors say that losing one to two pounds a week is safe while continuing to exercise and eat a healthy diet. Focusing on smaller portions and portion control will aid in this attempt.
- Stop smoking! Right now, if you are a smoker. Do your best to try to cut back and stop. Your doctor can help you with strategies and plans to cease this terrible habit. There are now medications that can be prescribed to ease cravings and ‘light’ cigarettes can be beneficial in your route to a smoke-free life. If you do not smoke, do not start!
How will my doctor diagnose and treat my pancreatic cancer?
There are tests that can help your doctor determine the best course of action for your cancer. Certain tests that may be ordered are:
- Imaging tests to take pictures of the pancreas and other organs. This is usually a CT scan, MRI scan, or a PET scan.
- Using an endoscope, pictures are taken of your pancreas from the inside of your body.
- Tissue biopsies are taken by inserting a needle through the skin and into the pancreas to withdraw cells and tissue.
- Blood tests can show specific marker proteins that signify tumor growth that are shed away by the pancreatic cancer cells. One tumor marker for pancreatic cancer is the CA19-9. Many doctors will measure your blood test levels multiple times from diagnosis to the end of treatment.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer varies on the stage that your cancer is. Surgery may be an option to try to remove the damaged parts or large tumors. Chemotherapy and radiation are treatments used to help shrink any growths and kill any cancer cells. There are also a number of clinical trials focused on learning all about pancreatic cancer that your doctor can advise you on if you are interested.
If you have a family history of cancer or pancreatic cancer, consider meeting with a genetic counselor so that they can review your family health history with you to determine if you might benefit from knowing about more of your genetics through special testing. This testing can alert your medical care team to many other issues that could arise and help to head them off before they become a problem.
If you suspect that you have pancreatic cancer or a history of this disease, and you are having any of the signs listed above, make an appointment with your specialists or medical care team to help find out the cause of your trouble.