Pancreatic Cancer

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What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a long, flat organ located behind the stomach. It produces digestive enzymes and a variety of hormones. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma, or cancer of the gland-forming cells in the pancreas. In the United States, approximately 40,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year (Source: NCI).

The specific cause of pancreatic cancer is not known, but some risk factors for its development have been identified. Risk factors include smoking, diabetes, obesity, and chronic pancreatitis (long-term inflammation of the pancreas).

Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice), upper abdominal or back pain, digestive problems, and unintended weight loss. Early pancreatic cancer may occur without symptoms, and pancreatic cancer is often at an advanced stage when it is discovered.

Depending on the individual situation and extent of spread of the cancer, treatments for pancreatic cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy as well as newer or experimental therapies.

Pancreatic cancer can increase the risk of blood clots developing in the legs or other areas of the body. Fragments of these clots can travel through the veins to the lungs, resulting in breathing difficulties. Also, rare types of pancreatic cancers can cause bleeding in the stomach or dangerously low blood sugar levels. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have difficulty breathing, chest pain, pale or blue lips, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), severe sweating, confusion, or loss or change in level of consciousness.

Seek prompt medical care if you experience unexpected weight loss, night sweats, jaundice, upper abdominal or back pain, persistent digestive problems, or other issues that concern you.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can result from decreased digestive enzyme production, compression of nearby tissues and organs, and spread of the disease. In very early stages, pancreatic cancer may produce no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Abdominal or back pain

  • Dark urine

  • Diarrhea

  • Fatigue and weakness

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea, which may be described as feelings of wooziness, queasiness, retching, sea-sickness, car-sickness, or an upset stomach

  • Night sweats

  • Pale feces that float

  • Persistent itching

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Vomiting

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, the complications of pancreatic cancer can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Cancer occurs when a cell becomes abnormal and control over its growth is lost. What causes pancreatic cancer is not known, although some risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer have been identified.

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get pancreatic cancer. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • African American race
  • Age over 55
  • Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver
  • Diabetes
  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Male gender
  • Obesity
  • Previous stomach or gallbladder surgery
  • Tobacco use

Reducing your risk of pancreatic cancer

You may be able to lower your risk of developing pancreatic cancer by:

  • Increasing your activity level
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting cigarette smoking and other forms of tobacco use

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Goal of cancer treatment

The goal of pancreatic cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Common treatments for pancreatic cancer

A number of surgical and other therapeutic approaches have been used in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Common treatments for pancreatic cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

  • Cryosurgery to freeze and destroy cancer cells

  • Embolization to block blood flow to the tumor by injecting a substance into an artery

  • Microwave thermotherapy to destroy cancer cells with heat

  • Participation in a clinical trial testing promising new treatments for pancreatic cancer

  • Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells

  • Radiofrequency ablation to destroy cancer cells

  • Surgery to remove the cancer or alleviate symptoms

  • Targeted therapy to attack cancer cells

Other treatments for pancreatic cancer

Other therapies may be added to help with general state of health and any complications of the cancer or its treatment. Those therapies might include:

  • Acid-blockers for the rare pancreatic cancers that increase stomach acid production

  • Antinausea medications if needed

  • Blood sugar monitoring and treatment if diabetes is present

  • Dietary counseling to help maintain strength and nutritional status

  • Pain medications as needed to increase comfort

  • Palliative care to improve the overall quality of life for patients with serious disease and their families

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with pancreatic cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which pancreatic cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of pancreatic cancer?

Some of the complications of pancreatic cancer are due to compression of nearby tissues and organs or spread of the disease. Others are related to the type of cancer. Complications of pancreatic cancer can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Adverse effects of treatment

  • Biliary obstruction (blockage of the duct that carries bile from the liver and gall bladder to the intestines)

  • Bowel obstruction

  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the leg that can break loose and cause a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack, or stroke)

  • Diabetes

  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)

  • Malnutrition

  • Recurrent tumor

  • Spread of cancer

  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (excess acid production in the stomach that can lead to ulcers)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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