Pancreatic Cancer

By:    Published: February 4, 2013

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The pancreas is a part of the body that few people ever pause to think about. In fact, few people know what the pancreas even does. Pancreatic cancer is known as one of the most deadly types of cancer, which is why is it so important to know and recognize the typical signs and symptoms of this disease.

Definition

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that first develops in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen behind the lower part of the stomach. This organ’s purpose is to secrete enzymes which help your body digest food. It also secretes the hormones that are responsible for helping to regulate your metabolism of sugars.

Pancreatic cancer is very dangerous since it rarely detected in its early stages and often comes with a very poor prognosis. Adding to the danger of this disease is the fact that pancreatic cancer tends to spread rapidly and the signs and symptoms aren’t always apparent until it’s too late.

Types

There are two main types of pancreatic cancer, each of which is categorized by which cells the cancer originally forms in:

  1. Cancer formed in the pancreas ducts: The pancreas ducts are responsible for producing juices which help with digestion. When cancer first forms in the cells located in the ducts of the pancreas, this type of pancreatic cancer occurs. This type of cancer is also referred to as adenocarcinoma and accounts for most of the cases of pancreatic cancer.
  2. Cancer formed in the hormone-producing cells: When cancer first forms in the cells of the pancreas responsible for producing hormones, this type of cancer occurs. This type of cancer is also referred to as endocrine cancer and is much rarer than cancer which is formed in the pancreas ducts.

Symptoms

One of the most dangerous things about pancreatic cancer is that tumors in the pancreas can often grow for some time without any symptoms. However, there are a few indicators that pancreatic cancer may be developing, including:

  • Dark-colored urine
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Jaundice (skin or eyes that become yellowish in color)
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen
  • Diarrhea
  • Indigestion
  • Back pain
  • Blood clots
  • Depression

These symptoms may be indicators of any number of diseases besides pancreatic cancer, so it’s important to see a doctor if you find that you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

Causes And Risk Factors

Pancreatic cancer is caused by a genetic mutation in the cells of the pancreas. The mutations allow the cells to divide and grow at unusually rapid rates. In addition, the mutations also allow the cells to stay alive under conditions where normal cells would die. Often, the accumulating cells will turn into a mass that forms a tumor.

There are several factors which can increase a person’s risk for pancreatic cancer, including:

  • Age: The older an individual is, the higher their risk for pancreatic cancer is. This is particularly true once a person surpasses the age of 60.
  • Sex: Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in women compared to men.
  • Race: African-Americans are more likely to get pancreatic cancer than people of other races.
  • Family history: Having a personal or family history of pancreatic cancer increases your risk for the disease. In addition, having a family history of certain genetic syndromes – including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome – increases a person’s risk for pancreatic cancer.
  • Smoking: Smokers are more likely to get pancreatic cancer than non-smokers.
  • Having certain health conditions: People with pancreatitis (chronic inflammation of the pancreas) or diabetes and those who are overweight or obese have a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.

Prevention

There are no proven ways to prevent pancreatic cancer completely, but many people can reduce their risk for the disease by taking the following steps:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a diet with lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Exercising regularly

Treatment

Sadly, pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly types of cancer. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 95 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will not be alive 5 years later. Additionally, those whose pancreatic cancer cannot be removed or that has spread to other parts of the body are generally given one year or less to live. Because of the poor prognosis of the disease, some people do not undergo intensive treatment once they are diagnosed. However, some types of pancreatic cancer may be treatable, and for those types of cancer the following treatments are often used:

  • Surgery: When possible, doctors will try to remove as much of the cancer from the pancreas as possible. One common method for this is the Whipple procedure, which involves removing the head of the pancreas, a portion of the small intestine, the gallbladder and part of the bile duct. A distal pancreatectomy involves removing the tail of the pancreas. In either case, surgery always has a risk of bleeding or infection.
  • Radiation therapy: With radiation therapy, high-energy beams are used to kill the cancer cells in the pancreas and other areas to which it has spread.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill off cancer cells. The drugs are administered orally or intravenously.
  • Clinical trials: Because pancreatic cancer is often accompanied by a poor prognosis, many people join clinical trials to explore new ways to treat their disease. This may involve taking a drug or even getting a experimental pancreatic cancer vaccine.

Sources:

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