Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas, a gland that secretes enzymes and hormones to aid in digestion and metabolism.

What are the different types of pancreatic cancer?

There are two main types of pancreatic cancer. The majority, approximately 95 percent, of pancreatic tumors are exocrine tumors, or tumors that begin in the cells that make digestive enzymes.

Another far less common type of pancreatic tumor is the neuroendocrine tumor. These tumors develop in the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. Neuroendocrine tumors develop at a slower pace than exocrine tumors.

It's important to distinguish between exocrine and neuroendocrine cancers of the pancreas. They have distinct risk factors and different signs and symptoms.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

In most cases of exocrine pancreatic cancer, symptoms do not appear until the disease has advanced. When symptoms do begin to appear, they often include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Digestive problems
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Enlarged gallbladder
  • Jaundice
  • Blood clots
  • Depression

The symptoms of neuroendocrine tumors are caused by an excess of or hormones released by the tumors into the blood stream. These symptoms include:

  • Stomach ulcers
  • Diabetes
  • Rash with swelling and blisters
  • Low blood sugar
  • Enlarged liver
  • Diarrhea

Because the pancreas is positioned behind other organs, it can be difficult for doctors to see or feel pancreatic tumors during routine medical procedures. If symptoms indicate a possibility of pancreatic cancer, a doctor will recommend a series of diagnostic tests, which may include a physical exam, blood tests, imaging tests and/or a biopsy of the pancreas.

What are the causes and risk factors of pancreatic cancer?

The exact cause is still unknown, but there are many known risk factors associated with the development of pancreatic cancer. The risk factors associated with exocrine tumors include:

  • Family history
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Genetic syndromes
  • Diabetes
  • Cirrhosis
  • H pylori infection
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to certain chemicals/pesticides

Risk factors for neuroendocrine tumors include:

  • Family history
  • Genetic syndromes
  • Diabetes

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

As with most types of cancer, the treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the type and the advancement of the cancer. Because pancreatic tumors are not often found during routine medical procedures, and symptoms don't appear until the disease has advanced, it can be challenging to treat pancreatic cancer.

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Treatment plans may focus on one type of these treatments, or a combination of two or more.

The primary goal of cancer treatment is to eliminate all signs of the cancer. If that's not possible, the focus becomes palliative care, which aims to relieve symptoms and prevent further advancement.