The pancreas (PAN-cree-us) is an organ that sits in the left side of your belly. The pancreas has two main functions. It makes digestive enzymes (proteins that break down food) and hormones that regulate blood sugar, such as insulin.
Pancreatic (PAN-cree-at-ick) occurs when abnormal cells grow uncontrolled in the pancreas. Most pancreatic cancers occur in the part of the pancreas that produces digestive fluids. A small number of pancreatic cancers occur in a part of the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar.
It is very important that your doctor find out which kind of pancreatic cancer you have because the two types have different treatments. This article will focus on the first type, which is called adenocarcinoma (add-en-oh-car-cin-oh-mah).
The problem with pancreatic cancer is that it usually spreads before any symptoms appear. Doctors aren't sure what causes pancreatic cancer, but they know it is more common in:
People who have had surgery for stomach ulcers or who have had chronic inflammation of the pancreas are also more likely to develop this cancer. And this type of cancer may run in families.
Symptoms of pancreatic may not show up right away. And when they do, they can look like other digestive problems. The most common signs of pancreatic cancer are:
Other warning signs of trouble in the pancreas include sudden diabetes or trouble in controlling blood sugar.
If your doctor thinks you may have pancreatic cancer, he or she may suggest the following tests:
Because symptoms don't show up until the cancer has spread, this disease is hard to cure. But treatment can help control your symptoms and improve length of survival and quality of life. How well they can do that depends on many things: how much the cancer has spread, your age and general health, and how well your body responds to treatment.
There is no proven way to prevent pancreatic cancer. You can decrease your risk of getting this cancer by not smoking. Cigarette smoking is the most significant risk factor associated with pancreatic cancer. If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start.
Also you may decrease your risk of developing pancreatic cancer by:
There is no method of screening for pancreatic cancer so that it can be caught and treated early.
If your doctor confirms that you have pancreatic cancer, he or she will do tests to see how aggressive the cancer is and how much it has spread. This is called "staging." Your treatment depends on the cancer's stage. Treatment may include:
In some cases, your doctor may suggest you enroll in a clinical trial. Clinical trials test promising but unproven treatments in patients.
In the rare case that the cancer has not spread outside the pancreas, doctors try to remove the cancer surgically. They may also recommend chemotherapy and/or radiation as part of the treatment.
When the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas to nearby organs or other parts of the body, complete cure is unlikely. However, multiple treatments are available to decrease symptoms and prolong survival. You and your cancer specialist can consider how to proceed. Treatment options include:
Even when the cancer appears to be completely removed by surgery, it can come back, either in the pancreas or elsewhere in the body. If it does recur, the cancer can be treated with the same options as listed above.
If you notice any symptoms of pancreatic cancer, call your doctor right away. He or she may suggest that you see a specialist to help determine if you have this disease.
Pancreatic cancer is a serious illness, and its death rate is high. About 19% of patients with pancreatic cancer live at least 1 year after diagnosis. Only 1% to 2% survives 5 years after diagnosis. Your chances of recovery depend on your age, how far the cancer has spread, general health and how you respond to treatment.
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
U.S. National Institutes of Health
Public Inquiries Office
Building 31, Room 10A03
31 Center Drive, MSC 8322
Bethesda, MD 20892-2580
American Cancer Society (ACS)
1599 Clifton Rd., NE
Atlanta, GA 30329-4251
Cancer Research Institute
681 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10022
National Pancreas Foundation
101 Federal St.
Boston, MA 02110