According to the World Cancer Research Fund, pancreatic cancer is the 12th most common type of cancer in the world. In 2020, there were almost half a million cases of pancreatic cancer worldwide, accounting for 3% of all cancers.
Photo courtesy of the NCI - National Cancer Institute.
In this article, we will cover the following:
- What pancreatic cancer is
- What causes pancreatic cancer
- What the survival rate of this type of cancer is
- What the main symptoms of pancreatic cancer are
- How this type of cancer is diagnosed and treated
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a form of cancer that occurs in the pancreas, an organ that is situated just below the stomach.
The pancreas is an endocrine gland that is responsible for the production of a range of digestive enzymes and the hormones insulin and glycogen, which are involved in the regulation of blood glucose levels.
The abnormal growth of the pancreatic cells can be cancerous or non-cancerous (benign). The most common type of cancerous tumor begins in the exocrine cells of the ducts that carry the digestive enzymes away from the pancreas and into the digestive tract. This type of pancreatic cancer is known as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma and it accounts for 90% of all pancreatic cancers.
Pancreatic cancer may also occur in the endocrine cells that produce insulin and glucagon. This is known as pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNET).
Sadly, pancreatic cancer is usually detected at its later stages, when it’s too late to cure and has already spread to other parts of the body.
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
There is currently no routine pancreatic screening process to detect pancreatic cancer and symptoms don’t usually appear until the cancer cells have already metastasized (spread to other areas of the body).
The following are potential symptoms of advanced pancreatic cancer:
- Blood clots
- Chronic abdominal and back pain
- Dark urine
- Digestive issues or changes in appetite
- Itchy skin
- Mood changes
- Unexplained weight loss
It’s important to note that these symptoms could be due to a number of other medical health conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
What are the causes of pancreatic cancer?
Cancer can occur sporadically in anybody at any time. When normal body cells start to grow uncontrollably due to a genetic fault, it can lead to the development of cancerous tumors. Over time, these tumors grow in size and eventually break away and travel to other parts of the body.
It’s not yet clear exactly why these random genetic mutations occur, but some hypotheses include excess oxidative damage to the DNA, increased exposure to carcinogens and toxins, and chronic inflammation.
The following risk factors increase the likelihood of somebody developing pancreatic cancer:
- Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Family history of pancreatic, breast, ovarian, or prostate cancers
- Infection with Helicobacter pylori
- Old age
- Poor diet
What is the survival rate of pancreatic cancer?
The five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is currently around 9%.
This low survival rate is likely due to the lack of routine screening options and the asymptotic nature of pancreatic cancer.
Both of these factors make early detection almost impossible.
What are the complications of pancreatic cancer?
As pancreatic cancer progresses and worsens over time, it can lead to a series of complications, including the following:
If somebody had jaundice, it can show up as the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, as well as pale-colored urine, and pale-colored stool. Jaundice is caused by the tumor mass blocking the liver’s bile duct.
If a patient has jaundice, doctors may place a stent inside the bile duct to expand the lumen and keep it open. This is performed via an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), where an endoscope gets inserted into the throat, through the stomach, and into the upper part of the small intestines.
From here, a constraining dye is injected into the pancreatic and bile ducts so imaging can be taken and doctors can see where the stent is being placed.
As the tumor mass grows in size, it can begin to press on the nerves in the abdominal region, causing pain.
Pain medications can be prescribed to help patients cope with the increasing pain. Doctors can also inject alcohol into the nerves to block signals and regulate the pain. This is known as a celiac plexus block.
Weight loss is a common side effect of cancer and cancer therapies. The body may be using more energy due to the growing mass of tumor cells and patients can often feel nauseous when they’re going through radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
With pancreatic cancer, there is the added complication of the pancreas potentially producing fewer digestive enzymes. This can make it difficult for your body to properly metabolize and absorb nutrients from foods.
What are the treatment options for pancreatic cancer?
The treatment options for pancreatic cancer depend on the size and severity of the cancer.
If the cancer has not yet spread to other parts of the body, doctors may be able to remove it through surgery. This is a complex process due to the pancreas being so close to many other vital organs.
Other surgical options can be performed to control the symptoms of the pancreatic cancer. This may involve using an endoscope to unblock the bile duct or the first part of the small intestines.
Chemotherapy may be used to destroy cancer cells and reduce symptoms. This is usually used if the cancer is in its early stages or after surgery to prevent the cancer from returning. Radiotherapy can also be used to kill cancer cells but it’s not commonly used for pancreatic cancer.
Alongside these treatments, healthcare professionals will provide all-around care. They will help patients with their diets and may prescribe digestive enzymes. They will also provide pain and antiemetic medications to reduce nausea and vomiting.
Catching pancreatic cancer early saves lives
As with all types of cancer, early detection can mean the difference between life and death for you or a loved one. It's incredibly important to seek pancreatic cancer screening early if you are experiencing a range of the symptoms above.
If caught early in Stage 1A, some studies suggest a tenfold increase in the potential survival rate of pancreatic cancer!
If you or somebody you know believes they may be at risk of pancreatic cancer, please don't hesitate to give us a call or schedule an appointment at any of our Southern California locations.