Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the pancreas, an organ located behind your stomach. The pancreas is responsible for producing hormones like insulin, which regulates blood sugar, and enzymes that aid in digestion.

There are two main types of cells in the pancreas, exocrine, and endocrine cells, each serving a different function. The majority of pancreatic cancers (about 95%) are exocrine tumors, usually adenocarcinomas. Less common are endocrine tumors, known as neuroendocrine or islet cell tumors.

Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to detect early because it typically doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms until it’s more advanced. Some possible symptoms include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), persistent abdominal or back pain, unexplained weight loss, and changes in stool or digestion.

Factors that may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer include smoking, obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), certain hereditary disorders, and a family history of pancreatic cancer.

pancreatic cancer

Despite ongoing advances in understanding and treatment, pancreatic cancer prognosis remains poor, largely due to late-stage discovery and its aggressive nature. The treatment usually involves surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these. Currently, research in this field is focused on finding ways to detect and diagnose this deadly cancer at an earlier stage, as well as exploring new treatments.

Causes of Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is caused by the uncontrolled growth of cells in the pancreas, resulting in the formation of a tumor. The exact causes of pancreatic cancer are not fully identified, but several risk factors are associated with it:

1. Age: Most pancreatic cancer cases occur in people aged 60 or over.

2. Smoking: Smokers are two or three times more likely to get pancreatic cancer than non-smokers. Studies suggest up to a third of pancreatic cancers are linked to smoking.

3. Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis) is a risk factor, although it’s an uncommon cause.

4. Diabetes: Long-standing diabetes increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

5. Family history: A family history of pancreatic cancer, particularly if it was an immediate relative (parent or sibling) who had it, increases risk.

6. Genetics: Certain genes and syndromes are linked to increased risk.

7. Obesity and Lack of Physical Activity: These are also associated with an elevated risk of pancreatic cancer.

8. Diet: A diet high in red and processed meats has been associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

It’s important to note that, while these factors increase a person’s risk, they do not guarantee the onset of pancreatic cancer. Likewise, individuals without these risk factors can still develop the disease.

Risk Factors of Pancreatic cancer

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not well understood, but certain risk factors are believed to increase the likelihood. Here are some of them:

1. Age: The majority of people who develop pancreatic cancer are over the age of 45. The highest incidence rates are in those aged 75-79.

2. Smoking: Smokers are twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as non-smokers. Approximately 20-30% of exocrine pancreatic cancers are thought to be caused by cigarette smoking.

3. Obesity: People who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

4. Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer is more common in individuals with diabetes. The reason behind this association isn’t fully understood yet.

5. Chronic pancreatitis: Long-term inflammation of the pancreas due to chronic pancreatitis can lead to pancreatic cancer.

6. Family history and genetics: A family history of pancreatic cancer or certain genetic disorders, including Lynch syndrome, BRCA2 gene mutation, familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, can increase the risk.

7. Diet: A diet high in red or processed meats has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

8. Alcohol use: Heavy alcohol use can lead to conditions such as chronic pancreatitis, which is a known risk factor for pancreatic cancer.

9. Exposure to Chemicals: People exposed to certain chemicals at the workplace, like certain pesticides, dyes, and chemicals used in metal refining, may have a slightly increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

These risk factors don’t guarantee that you’ll get pancreatic cancer, they just increase the odds. Not everyone with these risk factors develops the disease, and many people get the disease without having any of these risk factors. Regular health check-ups and a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk.

Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t show any symptoms in the early stages, which makes it hard to diagnose. However, as the disease progresses, symptoms may begin to appear. Please note that these symptoms can also be associated with many other conditions and do not definitively indicate pancreatic cancer. If you’re experiencing any of these, it’s important to visit a healthcare professional for an appropriate evaluation. These symptoms include:

1. Abdominal pain: This pain often occurs in the upper abdomen and may radiate to the back.

2. Unexplained weight loss: Dramatic weight loss without any changes in diet or physical activity can be a symptom.

3. Loss of appetite: Not feeling hungry, especially in conjunction with weight loss, can be a sign.

4. Yellow skin and eyes: This is known as jaundice, which can be a sign that the cancer is blocking the bile duct.

5. Changes in stool and urine: Stools may become light-colored or float in the toilet. Urine may become darker.

6. Itchy skin: Along with jaundice, some people may experience itchy skin.

7. Nausea and vomiting: Particularly after eating.

8. Enlarged gallbladder or liver: Your doctor may be able to feel this during a physical exam.

9. Blood clots: Blood clots often show up as swelling, redness, or pain in one leg, known as deep vein thrombosis or as a sudden onset of chest pain or shortness of breath, known as pulmonary embolism.

10. Diabetes: Developed suddenly. This is due to the pancreas losing its ability to produce insulin as it normally would.

Remember, these symptoms can be due to conditions other than pancreatic cancer. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to contact your doctor and discuss them.

Diagnosis Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland located behind the stomach and in front of the spine. It produces digestive juices and hormones that regulate blood sugar. Cells called exocrine pancreas cells produce the digestive juices, while cells called endocrine pancreas cells produce the hormones.

The majority of pancreatic cancers are exocrine cancers. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, which might or might not be cancerous, are much less common. They are cancers of the pancreas cells that make hormones.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice (yellow skin and eyes, and dark urine), pain in the upper abdomen or back, weight loss, loss of appetite, nausea, and other digestive problems.

Diagnosis usually includes imaging tests such as CT scans and MRI to visualize the pancreas, as well as biopsy to study the tissue under a microscope. Blood tests and genetic tests may also be done.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include smoking, obesity, age (most people are over 70), family history of pancreatic cancer, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, and certain genetic disorders.

Overall, the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is poor, because it is usually detected at a late stage. Treatment options depend on the stage of cancer, and it usually involves some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Still, each patient is different. Patients and their families are highly encouraged to talk about their condition and their care with their medical providers. They may also consider clinical trials.

Treatment of Pancreatic cancer

Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on its stage, the patient’s overall health, and their personal preferences. Here are some common treatment options:

1. Surgery: This is often used to remove the tumor and surrounding tissue, and can include procedures such as the Whipple procedure, distal pancreatectomy, or total pancreatectomy.

2. Radiation Therapy: This treatment uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to destroy the cancer cells. It can be used before or after surgery, or in combination with chemotherapy.

3. Chemotherapy: Drugs are used to kill the cancer cells. They can be administered orally or injected into a vein, and can be used alone or along with other treatments like radiation.

4. Targeted Therapy: This treatment uses drugs that specifically attack certain abnormalities within the cancer cells.

5. Immunotherapy: Certain types of immunotherapy, like checkpoint inhibitors, are sometimes used in treating pancreatic cancer. These drugs help the immune system recognize and fight cancer cells.

6. Clinical Trials: Pancreatic cancer patients may also be able to participate in clinical trials studying new treatments or new ways of using existing treatments.

7. Palliative Care: Also known as supportive care, this involves managing the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment.

All these treatments have varying side effects, and the right treatment depends on a variety of factors. Therefore, the healthcare provider should be consulted for making the most appropriate decision.

Medications commonly used for Pancreatic cancer

Chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy are common treatments for pancreatic cancer. These treatments may involve a single medication or a combination of medications. Here are some medications that are commonly used to treat pancreatic cancer:

1. Chemotherapy drugs: These are powerful medications that destroy fast-growing cancer cells. Examples include Gemcitabine (Gemzar), Fluorouracil (5-FU), Irinotecan (Camptosar), and Oxaliplatin (Eloxatin). Sometimes, a combination of several chemotherapy drugs like FOLFIRINOX (which combines Fluorouracil, Irinotecan, Oxaliplatin, and Leucovorin) is used.

2. Targeted therapy drugs: This kind of therapy targets the specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. One example is Erlotinib (Tarceva), which blocks the chemicals that signal cancer cells to grow and divide.

3. Immunotherapy drugs: This treatment uses our immune system to fight cancer. Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is an example of immunotherapy.

4. Supportive medications: These are used to prevent or manage side-effects. Examples include antiemetics for nausea and vomiting, pain relievers, and pancreatic enzymes to help with digestion.

It’s essential to remember that all medications have potential side-effects, therefore, the patient must discuss their treatment options thoroughly with their oncologist. Also, not all patients with pancreatic cancer would need all these medications – it will depend on factors like the stage and type of cancer, patient’s overall health, and personal preferences.

Prevention of Pancreatic cancer

Preventing pancreatic cancer can be challenging because the exact cause of this disease is unknown. There are, however, several ways to reduce the risk of developing pancreatic cancer:

1. Avoid Smoking: Smoking is a significant risk factor for pancreatic cancer. If you’ve never smoked, don’t start. If you smoke, try to quit.

2. Limit Alcohol Consumption: Chronic and heavy alcohol use can lead to conditions like pancreatitis, which is known to increase pancreatic cancer risk.

3. Maintain a Healthy Weight: Obesity increases the risk of this disease. Maintain a healthy weight and incorporate physical activity into your daily routine.

4. Eat a Balanced Diet: A diet high in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.

5. Control Diabetes: Pancreatic cancer is more common in people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, maintaining good control of your blood sugar levels might help reduce your risk.

6. Limit Exposure to Certain Chemicals: Occupational exposure to certain chemicals used in the metalworking industry may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer.

7. Screen Regularly: If you have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic mutations that increase your risk, you could benefit from regular screening.

Remember, while these measures can reduce the risk, they can’t guarantee prevention. Therefore, regular check-ups and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are crucial. Always consult with a healthcare provider for personalized advice.

FAQ’s about Pancreatic cancer

1. What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas.

2. What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
The symptoms include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), dark urine, light-colored stool, itching, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, abdominal or back pain, and blood clots.

3. Who is at risk for pancreatic cancer?
Factors like smoking, being overweight, having a personal family history of pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, certain hereditary conditions, and old age can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

4. How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
Pancreatic cancer can be diagnosed through physical exams, blood tests, imaging tests (like CT scans, MRI, Ultrasound, etc.), biopsies, and endoscopic ultrasounds.

5. What are the treatment options for pancreatic cancer?
Treatments can range from surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy to immunotherapy, depending on the stage and progression of the cancer.

6. What is the survival rate for pancreatic cancer?
The survival rate can vary depending on the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer often has a poor prognosis, even when diagnosed early.

7. Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?
While not all risk factors are preventable, maintaining a healthy lifestyle (balanced diet, regular exercise, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol) can help reduce the risk.

8. How common is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer represents about 3% of all cancers in the US and about 7% of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.

9. What is the difference between exocrine and endocrine pancreatic cancer?
Exocrine pancreatic cancer, the most common, starts in the exocrine cells that make pancreatic enzymes to aid digestion. Endocrine pancreatic cancers are rare and begin in the endocrine cells, which produce hormones like insulin and glucagon.

10. How does pancreatic cancer affect the body?
It can harm normal functioning of the pancreas, impair digestion, affect blood sugar levels, spread to nearby or distant organs (liver, lungs, etc.), and cause other direct and secondary health complications.

Please consult with a healthcare professional for personalized medical advice.

Useful links

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas. Pancreas plays essential roles in digestion and hormone production.

Here is a list of some useful articles from scientific journals on pancreatic cancer:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36191926/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35988957/

In addition to these, there are several other articles and reviews available on PubMed Central (PMC) which is a free digital repository that archives publicly accessible full-text scholarly articles.

Always consult with your healthcare provider for a better understanding of any medical findings or treatments. Remember, these articles do not replace the need for a consultation with a healthcare provider.

Complications of Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer can lead to numerous complications, both directly related to the cancer itself and the effects of its treatment:

1. Metastasis: This is one of the most serious complications of pancreatic cancer. The cancer can spread from the pancreas to nearby organs like the liver, lungs, or bones, which makes treatment considerably more difficult and the prognosis often less favorable.

2. Jaundice: This occurs when a tumor blocks the bile duct, resulting in symptoms like yellowing of the skin and eyes, dark urine, and light-colored stools.

3. Pain: As the cancer progresses, it can cause significant pain. This can be due to the tumor pressing on nearby nerves or due to the cancer spreading to the bones.

4. Weight Loss and Malnutrition: The pancreas is essential for digestion. As cancer disrupts its function, it can lead to unintended weight loss, malnutrition, and problems digesting food and absorbing nutrients.

Pancreatic cancer

5. Blood Clots: People with pancreatic cancer are also more likely to develop blood clots, which can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke or pulmonary embolism.

6. Diabetes: Since the pancreas is involved in insulin production, pancreatic cancer can lead to diabetes or exacerbate symptoms in those already diagnosed with diabetes.

7. Mental Health Issues: The diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer can cause significant emotional stress, anxiety, and depression.

8. Side Effects from Treatment: Procedures like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy bring their own array of complications, like infection, fatigue, nausea, hair loss, and more.

9. Ascites: This refers to the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, often causing swelling and discomfort.

Every person’s experience with pancreatic cancer may vary, and not all patients will experience all of these complications. The early detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer can help reduce these complications and improve the quality of life of the affected individual.

Home remedies of Pancreatic cancer

First off, it’s crucial to state that pancreatic cancer is a serious, life-threatening illness that needs professional medical attention immediately upon detection. There are no home remedies that can cure or treat pancreatic cancer directly.

However, some home remedies and certain lifestyle changes can help manage the symptoms related to pancreatic cancer and the side effects related to its treatment, such as fatigue, loss of appetite, and discomfort. It’s crucial that these steps be taken in coordination with your doctor or medical team. A few include:

1. Nutritional Diet: Eating smaller, but frequent meals can help manage the impact of the disease on your digestive process. Consider including easy-to-digest foods and hydrating well.

2. Exercise: Light exercises, under the guidance of a physiotherapist or a healthcare professional, can reduce fatigue and improve mood.

3. Mindfulness and Meditation: Practicing mindfulness, meditation, or yoga may help deal with stress and anxiety, and improve mental wellbeing.

4. Acupuncture: This technique has been used to alleviate pain and reduce vomiting due to chemotherapy. Always ensure that the acupuncturist specializes in working with cancer patients.

5. Herbal Supplements: Some herbs like ginger could help with nausea associated with chemotherapy. However, it’s necessary to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any herbal supplement as it could interact with your cancer treatment.

Remember, it’s vitally important to consult your healthcare team before starting any new treatment or remedy, even if it seems harmless. They can provide the best guidance and advice tailored to your specific situation. Your healthcare team will be able to recommend treatments for pancreatic cancer such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of these treatments based on the stage and extent of the cancer.

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Last Update: January 4, 2024