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Pancreatic Cancer

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention of Pancreatic Cancer

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Updated May 20, 2014

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that affects the pancreas, an organ that lies behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas is responsible for producing hormones like insulin and glucagon, which help control our blood sugar levels. It also produces enzymes that help breakdown protein and carbohydrates during digestion.

Like other organs in the body, the pancreas is vulnerable to cancer. There are several types of pancreatic cancer, however the most common is adenocarcinoma. This type of cancer affects cells that produce digestive enzymes. Much less common types of pancreatic cancer include islet cell carcinoma, pancreatic blastoma, and pseudopapillary neoplasms.

Pancreatic Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Although we cannot pinpoint what causes pancreatic cancer, researchers have identified several risk factors. A risk factor is something that increases the likelihood that you will develop pancreatic cancer, but is not a guarantee. Risk factors of pancreatic cancer include:
  • Smoking. Smokers are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.
  • Race. African-American are diagnosed more frequently than other races with pancreatic cancer. The diverse ratio of diagnoses among ethnic groups in not yet clear.
  • Increasing age. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer greatly increases after age 50.
  • Having Diabetes. Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed more often in people with diabetes.
  • Chronic Pancreatitis. Chronic inflammation of the pancreas may slightly increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Family History. Pancreatic cancer runs in some families. About 10% of cases are thought to be related to inherited genetic mutations.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

Many times there is a delay in diagnosing pancreatic cancer because the symptoms are also associated with many other illnesses. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are not exclusive to the disease. Symptoms rarely occur in the early stages and are gradual.

At least 50% of people with pancreatic cancer experience jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Other pancreatic cancer symptoms include:
  • Weight loss
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal discomfort or pain
  • sudden onset of diabetes
  • brown or orange colored urine

When the pancreas produce too much insulin, other symptoms such as chills, diarrhea, general feeling of weakness, and muscle spasms may also be experienced.

Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to detect because symptoms are vague and related to other conditions. It is rarely detected in the early stages when it is the most treatable. If your doctor suspects you may have pancreatic cancer, one of the first steps may be imaging tests like an ultrasound or MRI may be done to get a better view of the pancreas. Your doctor may recommend you have an endoscopy combined with special techniques like an ultrasound to further evaluate the pancreas.

Ultimately it is a biopsy that confirms the presence or absence of cancer. A biopsy is the sampling of tissue from the pancreas to be examined under a microscope by a pathologist. There are several ways to biopsy the pancreas, but a procedure call fine needle aspiration (FNA) is the most common. During a fine needle biopsy, a radiologist inserts a long, thin needle into the skin and to the pancreas. A small sample of tissue is removed and the needle is removed. During the biopsy, the radiologist may use an ultrasound or CT scan to help him through the procedure. A local anesthetic is given prior to the biopsy. Other biopsy methods that may be done during laparoscopic surgery or during an endoscopy.

Treatment of Pancreatic Cancer

There are three types of treatment methods for pancreatic cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Treatment heavily depends on the stage of pancreatic cancer, type, and general health.

Surgery can be done to treat cases of pancreatic cancer that is considered curable or can be done to alleviate the symptoms caused by the tumor(s). A surgical procedure called a Whipple is most commonly performed in people whose cancer may be curable. During a Whipple, a large portion of the pancreas, part of the stomach, small intestine, gallbladder and bile duct are removed. Less common surgical methods include a total or distal pancreatectomy, the removal of the entire pancreas.

Prior to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy mave be given prior to surgery to shrink increase the success of surgery by shrinking tumors and elimiation cancer cells. These treatments aren't for every patient and dpends on stage of cancer and general health factors.

Radiation therapy is also an option for treating some people with pancreatic cancer. This type of treatment uses certain types of high-energy beams of radiation to shrink tumors or eliminate cancer cells. Radiation therapy works by damaging a cancer cell's DNA, making it unable to multiply. Although radiation therapy can damage nearby healthy cells, cancer cells are highly sensitive to radiation and typically die when treated. Healthy cells that are damaged during radiation are resilient and are often able to fully recover.
Chemotherapy may be prescribed to treat pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy drugs work by eliminating rapidly multiplying cancer cells, however, there are other healthy cells in the body that multiply just as quickly, such as hair follicle cells. Unfortunately, many chemotherapy drugs may not be able to discern the two, attacking healthy cells and causing side effects, such as hair loss. .

Pancreatic Cancer Prevention

There are simply no proven means of preventing pancreatic cancer. By avoiding what risk factors we can for bladder cancer, we may be able to reduce our chances of developing it.

Quit Smoking or Don't Start. Smoking is a significant risk factor for pancreatic cancer. As soon as you quit (it's never too late!), your body reaps the benefits of being tobacco free. Need help kicking the habit? Visit the About.com Smoking Cessation site.
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