The pancreas is a leaf-like structure located just below the stomach. The organ produces pancreatic juices that aid in digestion and hormones like glucagon and insulin that maintain blood sugar levels in the body. However, abnormal growth of the pancreatic cells leads to cancer, which mostly occurs in the tissue surrounding the pancreatic gland. It can be benign (restricted to the organ) or malignant (progressed to surrounding parts of the organ).
The cancerous tissues grow very rapidly in the pancreas without giving rise to any symptoms until it progresses to a critical stage. In later stages, there could be several symptoms like -
- Upper abdominal pain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting and nausea
- Dark urine
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Back pain
- Sudden weight loss
- Pale colored stools
- Itching of the skin
As the organ is located near the stomach, symptoms of the digestive system often predominate in case of pancreatic cancer.
Causes and risk factors
Genetic mutation of pancreatic cells is thought to be the main cause of this disease. However, experts suggest that pancreatitis and diabetes could be the two major factors that may have a role to play in the onset of this disease. Apart from this, the other factors that increase your risk of pancreatic cancer include -
Smoking: Studies have proved that smoking increases your risk of pancreatic cancer. And more interesting is the fact that the risk is nil if you have quit smoking for more than ten years.
Obesity: People with a BMI higher than 30 were found to have a high chance of getting pancreatic cancer. Also, people who exercise more frequently were at a lower risk as compared to those who lead an inactive lifestyle.
Diseases: Although it is believed that people with diabetes are at a high risk of pancreatic cancer, no studies have proven the link till date.
For the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, CT scan and MRI scan are the most common diagnostic tests that are recommended. Apart from this, other techniques your doctor might advice include endoscopy and tissue biopsy, to confirm the presence of the cancer.
CT (computerized topography) scan: It analyzes the internal structures of the body (in this case, pancreas) for diagnosing traumatic injuries, tumors or an infection. Here is what you need to know about CT scan.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): In this, a beam of radio waves and magnetic fields is sent through the body to detect a defect in the organ of interest (pancreas). It gives an accurate image of the organ and structures within, thus helping in getting a clear idea of cancerous cells and the extent of the growth.
Endoscopy: It is a non-surgical procedure that involves examination of the stomach or digestive tract with the help of an instrument called as an endoscope. Read in detail about why endoscopy ultrasound is better than conventional endoscopy.
Biopsy: In this, a small piece of the pancreatic tissue is surgically removed. The sample is sent for microscopic examination to detect the presence of cancerous cells.
Here are six tests to determine your risk of cancer.
As in other cases of cancer treatment, the treatment options available for pancreatic cancer are --
Surgery: If the pancreatic cancer has not spread to the nearby organs, surgical removal of the pancreas (or a part of it) is the most preferred option. And this is mostly followed by chemotherapy and biopsies to rule out the recurrence of the cancer.
Whipple procedure: It involves surgical removal of the head of the pancreas along with a small part of the small intestine, bile duct, and gall bladder. In most cases, people undergoing this process experience internal bleeding or infection after the surgery. It takes a long time to recover and thus, care should be taken even after the patient is discharged from te hospital.
Distal pancreatectomy: In this, the tail of the pancreas that is cancerous in nature is removed. Although it carries a risk of bleeding and infection; the possibility is very less as compared to Whipple procedure. In some cases, it also includes complete removal of the spleen.
Radiation therapy: In case the cancerous cells have migrated to the surrounding tissues or organs, radiation therapy is recommended. It involves passing a beam of ionizing radiation through the body to kill the tumor cells.
Chemotherapy: This treatment option is recommended if the cancer has spread to nearby organs and can be controlled with the help of medication. However, if the cancerous cells have migrated to nearby organs and not far away from the site of origin, chemotherapy is used in combination with radiation therapy for effective results.
Targeted drug therapy: It is most widely used in case of advanced pancreatic cancer (cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body). It targets specific abnormalities within the cancerous cells thus aiding in the treatment of the cancer. The targeted drug known as erlotinib blocks the chemical signals that are required for the growth of the cancerous cells.
In most cases, a combination of these therapies is recommended, depending upon the severity of the cancer and extent of malignancy.
Here is detailed information on the latest research and advances in cancer treatment.