Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer which begins in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen which is located behind the lower part of the stomach. The pancreas release enzymes which help in digestion of food and produce hormones that help regular the level of glucose in the body.
Different types of growth – cancerous and non-cancerous can occur in the pancreas. However, the most common form of cancer that occurs in the pancreas is the one which develops in the cells that outline the ducts carrying digestive enzymes out of the pancreas. This type of cancer usually does not produce significant symptoms unless it spreads to other organs. That said, it is easy to treat pancreatic cancer provided it is detected early on the stage.
Symptoms and warning signs of pancreas cancer
As mentioned, the warning signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer do not show up until the disease becomes advanced. That said, some of the common symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain which stretches to the back
- Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
- Yellowing of skin
- Yellowing of the whites of the eyes, probably in conditions such as jaundice
- Light-coloured stools
- Dark-coloured urine
- Itchy and scaly skin
- Sudden development of diabetes or the severity of existing diabetes
- Blood clots
- Back pain
Also, as the pancreas cancer grows to spread to other organs and affect the whole body, the signs and symptoms experienced will include:
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Elevated blood sugar levels
Further, symptoms of rare pancreatic cancer which is called islet cell tumour or neuroendocrine tumours are different from the general pancreatic cancer symptoms. This type of cancer arises from the cells in the pancreas which make the hormones. Islet cell tumour causes abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea and vomiting. Moreover, hormones released by an islet cell tumour send out the below symptoms:
- Excessive production of insulin in the body leading to severe anxiety, lightheadedness, sweat and even fainting
- Excess glucagon leading to diarrhoea, increased thirst and urination, and weight loss
- Gastrin which causes abdominal ache, stomach ulcers, acid reflux and weight loss
Causes of Pancreas Cancer
The exact cause of pancreas cancer cannot be determined; however, some factors increase the risk of certain people being affected by the problem. These factors include smoking and specific gene mutations. That said, to understand the cause of pancreatic cancer, one needs to understand the pancreas and identify any changes.
The pancreas is approximately 6 inches long and appears like a pear lying on its side. The pancreas release hormones in the body including insulin to help regulate the glucose level in the body received from food. It also produces digestive juices to help the body easily digest and take in nutrients.
That said, pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells in the pancreas change their DNA. The DNA of the cell includes instructions on what to do. The mutations in the DNA tell the cells to grow uncontrollably and to continue to exist even after the death of normal cells. The accumulation of these abnormal cells forms a tumour. If left untreated, pancreatic cancer can also spread to other nearby organs and blood vessels and even to the distant body parts.
Most pancreatic cancers begin in the cells which line the ducts of the pancreas. This type of cancer is known as pancreatic adenocarcinoma or pancreatic exocrine cancer.
Risk Factors of Pancreas Cancer
Some of the factors which make one more prone to the risk of developing cancer in the pancreas include:
- Smoking of tobacco
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas known as pancreatitis
- Family history of genetic syndromes which can increase the risk of cancer
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
- People above the age of 65
Prevention of Pancreas Cancer
Cancer in the pancreas can be prevented if a person follows the following precautions:
- Stop smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Indulge physical activity
- Choose a healthy diet
Diagnosis of Pancreas Cancer
If the doctor or the patient experiences any symptoms that indicate pancreatic cancer, the patient might have to undergo one or more of the below tests to confirm the diagnosis:
- Imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scan, MRI or even positron emission tomography (PET) scan to get pictures of the internal organs
- Utilizing a scope to create ultrasound pictures of the pancreas via endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). This test provides images of the pancreas from inside the abdomen.
- Biopsy by removing a sample tissue for examination under a microscope
- A blood test to check levels of certain proteins shed by pancreatic cells
Once, the diagnosis confirms pancreatic cancer, the doctor examines the cells to know the stage of cancer and check how far has cancer progressed to affect other body parts.
Treatment for Pancreas Cancer
The treatment of pancreas cancer depends on the location and the stage of cancer, as well on the personal preference, general health and the age of the patient. The goal of most treatment options is to eliminate cancer from the body and if that is not a viable option that minimizing the damage or improving the quality of life can be the aim of treatment in general.
Some treatment options include:
- Radiation therapy
Overall, if detected in time, pancreatic cancer can be treated effectively. However, if cancer has spread to other organs or has reached a very advanced stage, the treatment might become too difficult and may generally be aimed at improving the quality of life or reducing any further damage.