Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month - November
The pancreas is an organ located behind the lower stomach. Your pancreas produces enzymes which help break down the foods you eat. It also produces hormones to help regulate your blood sugar. The pancreas is about six inches long and resembles a pear lying on its side. Pancreatic cancer forms when the cells in the organ mutate and begin to grow uncontrollably.
Factors which increase your risk for pancreatic cancer are:
- African American Race
- Male Gender
- Over 45 Years of Age
- Personal or Family History of Pancreatic Cancer
- Chronic Pancreatitis
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer often do not occur until the disease is in the latter stages. They may consist of:
- Abdominal or back pain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (Jaundice)
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Blood clots
- Digestive problems
Many conditions other than pancreatic cancer could produce similar symptoms. Please see your doctor if you experience these warning signs.
If you are experiencing symptoms of pancreatic cancer, your physician may use one of the following tests to diagnose your condition:
- Physical Exam – Your physician will focus mainly on the abdomen to check for swelling and may look for jaundice.
- Blood Test – Certain blood tests can be used to help find pancreatic cancer.
- Imaging Tests – An imaging test such as an ultrasound, CT or MRI can create a picture of what your pancreas looks like internally.
- Biopsy – A biopsy will remove a small tissue sample by injecting a small needle through your skin and into your pancreas. The tissue is then examined under a microscope.
- Endoscope – An endoscope can be passed down your throat, through your stomach and into your small intestine. A dye is injected into the pancreas through a small tube passed through the endoscope. The dye helps to highlight the cells of the pancreas and x-rays are taken of the pancreas while the dye is present.
Not all growths found in the pancreas are cancerous. Some growths are benign (noncancerous) or may become cancerous over time if left untreated (precancerous).
If a diagnosis of cancer is confirmed, your doctor will then determine the progression of the cancer. The stage of the cancer will help establish the recommended course of treatment. The Mayo Clinic outlines the stages of pancreatic cancer as:
- Stage I - Cancer is confined to the pancreas
- Stage II - Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to nearby tissues and organs and may have spread to the lymph nodes
- Stage III - Cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to the major blood vessels around the pancreas and may have spread to the lymph nodes
- Stage IV - Cancer has spread to distant sites beyond the pancreas, such as the liver, lungs and the lining that surrounds your abdominal organs
Treatment for pancreatic cancer varies depending on the stage of cancer, location of the tumor, your age and current health status. Treatment options include:
- Surgery – Surgery can be performed as a treatment option to either remove all or part of the cancer, depending on how far the cancer has spread.
- Ablation – Ablation destroys cancer cells with either extreme heat or cold and is usually used in conjunction with another form of treatment.
- Radiation Therapy – The American Cancer Society describes radiation therapy as, "treatment with high energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors". Radiation therapy may be used alone, before surgery to try to shrink the size of the tumor or along with chemotherapy.
- Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It is a useful form of treatment when pancreatic cancer has spread. The drug is able to enter the bloodstream and work throughout the entire body. Chemotherapy is often combined with surgery or radiation treatments.
Cancer cannot be prevented. As with other conditions, there are lifestyle modifications which can decrease the risk:
- Maintaining a healthy weight for your age, height and gender
- Stop using tobacco products
- Eat a healthy diet consisting mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins
According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer accounts for approximately 3% of cancers in the United States but 7% of cancer deaths. If you have symptoms or risk factors for pancreatic cancer, discuss them with your primary care provider.
Information provided by Krystal Moyers, M.Ed, CHES, with Community Outreach.