Pancreatic cancer starts in the pancreas, which is an organ within the abdomen that lies right behind the lower part of the stomach. Diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer can be challenging. The job of the pancreas is to secrete hormones that aid in regulation sugar metabolism and enzymes that help with digestion. Unfortunately, even when it is diagnosed early, pancreatic cancer generally has a very poor prognosis. This type of cancer spreads quickly and is rarely detected while still in the early stages, making it a top cause of cancer death.
In most cases, the symptoms do not appear until the cancer has become advanced. When the symptoms do appear, they often include:
- Blood clots
- Pain in the upper abdomen that radiates into the back
- Weight loss
- Yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin
- Loss of appetite
Researchers are still unsure what causes pancreatic cancer. This type of cancer occurs when cells within the organ begin to develop mutations within the DNA, causing cells to start growing uncontrollably. Cells continue living when normal cells would start dying, and the accumulation of cells may result in tumor formation. While most pancreatic cancer starts in the cells lining the pancreatic ducts, it’s possible for cancer to begin in the cells of the pancreas that produce hormones.
How do you diagnose pancreatic cancer?
When a physician suspects pancreatic cancer, one or more tests may be ordered for diagnostic purposes, including:
- Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS) – An ultrasound device is passed via an endoscope through the esophagus and into the patient’s stomach to help obtain images of the pancreas. A sample of the pancreatic cells may also be collected during the endoscopic ultrasound.
- Imaging tests – Certain imaging tests, such as a MRI or CT scan, may be used to help physicians get a visual of your pancreas.
- Pancreatic Biopsy – A small sample of pancreatic tissue may be removed and examined with a microscope.
- Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) – This test uses a scope to inject dye into the ducts of the pancreas and then x-rays of these ducts are taken.
After confirming a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, physicians will try to determine the stage of the cancer. To do so, more imaging tests, blood tests, or laparoscopies may be performed to help determine the cancer’s stage so a treatment plan can be developed.
How do you treat pancreatic cancer?
The type of treatment used for pancreatic cancer largely depends on the location and stage of the cancer. However, personal preferences, age, and overall health are also taken into consideration. The main goal of treatment is to eliminate pancreatic cancer, but if that is impossible, treatment will focus on preventing the cancer from causing more damage to the body. If the cancer is so advanced that treatment will not benefit the patient, doctors focus on offering comfort and symptom relief.
For pancreatic cancer confined to the pancreas, surgery may be an option. Surgery is often done to remove tumors from the pancreatic body, tail, or head. Radiation, which uses high-energy beams to eliminate cancer cells, may also be used before or after surgery, or when surgery is not an option. Chemotherapy is often used alone or with radiation to kill cancer cells and is usually used to treat pancreatic cancer that has begun to spread. As new drugs and therapies become available, clinical trials may also be available for patients with pancreatic cancer, although it’s always important to discuss clinical trials carefully with your physician before moving forward.