What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

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Your pancreas produces enzymes that help with digesting your food - specifically breaking down carbohydrates and fats. The pancreas also secretes hormones that aid in digestion, and regulate your blood sugar and your appetite. 

The early stages of pancreatic cancer often go unnoticed, however, which makes it a challenging condition to treat. By the time patients get medical help, the cancer tends to be in it’s later stages already and spread to other parts of the body. 

Keeping an eye out for the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can help you catch it early.  If anything seems off, don't hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider.

Where Is My Pancreas And What Does It Do?

Your pancreas is located in the upper part of your abdomen, right behind your stomach. It is a relatively small organ with a big impact. The pancreas is responsible for producing digestive enzymes that help process your food and also produces hormones that help regulate blood sugar and hunger.

The pancreas has three main parts – the head, body, and tail. Cancer can arise in any one of these areas, and the location of the tumour can influence the symptoms, treatment options, and prognosis of the disease.

Within the pancreas, the exocrine gland produces the digestive juices. When you eat, food mixes with the pancreatic ensymes in the duodenum, and then the small intestine absorbs the nutrients. 

Exocrine pancreatic cancer types include adenocarcinoma or ductal carcinoma, which accounts for over 90% of pancreatic cancers, where the cancer begins in the ducts responsible for transporting digestive enzymes out of the pancreas. 

The endocrine glands in the pancreas produce at least five different hormones, namely glucagon, insulin, somatostatin, ghrelin, and pancreatic polypeptide. Insulin and glucagon specifically are important for regulating blood sugar levels. Insulin acts to lower blood sugar while glucagon acts to raise it. Neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer makes up about 5% of pancreatic cancers. 

What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?

The exact causes of pancreatic cancer are still a bit of a mystery, but certain factors have been linked to the disease. Things like getting older, smoking, regular alcohol use, obesity, a family history of pancreatic or other cancers, chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, previous radiotherapy, and certain genetic syndromes can increase your risk. 

With regards to diabetes, a little over a quarter of patients who develop pancreatic cancer have been diagnosed with diabetes, pancreatic cysts, and pancreatitis prior to their cancer diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer also appears to be more common in men, one theory being that menopausal hormone therapy in women has a protective effect. 

Despite these risk factors, anyone can get pancreatic cancer.

What Are The Symptoms Of Pancreatic Cancer?

Pancreatic cancer often remains asymptomatic until it reaches an advanced stage. When symptoms do occur, they can be nonspecific and easily mistaken for other conditions. 

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are very diverse and depends on where the cancer is located:

  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea, constipation and general stool changes
  • Dark urine
  • Problems swallowing
  • Thirst
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Itchy skin
  • Indigestion and bloating
  • Hyperglycemia or new-onset diabetes

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer will usually involve a medical history evaluation and a battery of tests, possibly including physical examinations, blood tests, imaging tests, tissue biopsies, endoscopic ultrasound and laparoscopy.

What Are The Treatment Options For Pancreatic Cancer?

The choice of treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, the location of the tumour, your overall health, and your individual preferences. Treatment modalities may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these approaches.

Even when diagnosed early (which seldom happens) this cancer is aggressive with a poor survival rate, although this is more true at advanced stages. 5-year survival rates are around 7%, although this number seems to have improved slightly in the last few years due to advancements in the field. 

The best chance of beating the disease is if the tumour can be removed surgically, however, due to the late stage of most pancreatic cancer diagnoses this is often not possible. 

Can You Prevent Pancreatic Cancer?

The short answer is no. However, extensive research is being conducted to improve early detection methods, develop new treatment strategies, and enhance patient outcomes for this difficult disease. Hopefully, this will translate into better outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients in the coming years. 

In the meantime, it is important to be aware of the possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer and let your doctor know as soon as you notice something new. Patients diagnosed early have higher survival rates than those only diagnosed in an emergency.

A healthy diet, avoiding smoking and alcohol, and exercise are good for overall health, not forgetting to make sure you have support systems in place and are looking after your mental health. The healthier you are overall the easier it is to fight disease and support treatments.

Why Is Pancreatic Cancer Labelled ‘The Silent Killer’?

Pancreatic cancer is considered aggressive, and generally has a poor prognosis. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘silent killer’ due to the fact that symptoms are not easily detectable in earlier stages and diagnosis of pancreatic cancer generally occurs when the disease has already spread to other areas. Over half of patients with this disease die within 3 months of their diagnosis, a truly terrifying outcome.

While not the most common cancer, the incidence of pancreatic cancer is rising. Pancreatic cancer is projected to become one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the next few decades. Despite this dismal prediction, research into improved screening and treatment methods is expanding, and will hopefully lead to better management of this disease. There is hope, and survival rates have improved somewhat in the past year, but increased awareness, early detection, and advances in treatment options are essential to improving outcomes for patients. 

Pancreatic cancer remains one of the most challenging and deadliest forms of cancer, significantly impacting a patient's physical and emotional well-being, as well as their loved ones. This disease should be taken seriously, and both diagnosis and treatment need to be done as early as possible. Talk to the team at GlobMed about ways to get the best medical care you need, without having to deal with long waiting lists. 

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