What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer occurs in the tissues of the pancreas, which is a key endocrine organ located behind the stomach. The pancreas plays a very important role by producing the enzymes that the body requires to digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
Glucagon and insulin are also produced by the pancreas. These hormones control the glucose metabolism. Glucagon helps to raise the levels of glucose when they get low. Insulin helps the cells to metabolize glucose to give energy.
It is difficult to detect pancreatic cancer due to its location. In most cases, it is detected in more advanced stages. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of the cancer-related fatalities in the U.S.
What causes pancreatic cancer?
The cause of this type of cancer is not known. Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow within the pancreas forming tumors. Usually, the healthy cells grow and die in moderate numbers. In the cancer case, the production of abnormal cancer cells increases taking over the healthy cells, eventually.
What are the risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer?
Although the cause of pancreatic cancer is not known, there are various risk factors that increase the chances of one developing cancer. You are at an increased risk if you:
Smoke cigarettes. 30 percent of the cases of cancer occur as a result of smoking cigarettes
Eat a few vegetables and fruits
Do not exercise regularly
Eat foods that are high in fat contents
Drink high and heavy amount of alcohol
Have liver complications
Work with chemicals and pesticides
Have inflammation of the pancreas
Have a family history of this type of cancer
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer does not often show symptoms until it gets to the advanced stages of this disease. Some common symptoms may be subtle and they include;
Loss of appetite
Unintended loss of weight
Abdominal or lower back pain
If the pancreatic cancer is spreading, it can worsen the preexisting symptoms.
The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer
The early diagnosis will significantly increase the chances of recovery. It is therefore very important to visit your doctor if you experience any symptoms that do not go away or regularly recurs.
To make a diagnosis, a doctor reviews the symptoms and medical history. They order one or more tests to check for pancreatic cancer. Such tests include:
MRI or CT scans to obtain a complete and detailed image of the pancreas
Blood tests to find if the tumor marker CA 19-9 is present, which may indicate pancreatic cancer.
Biopsy or the tissue sample of the pancreas.
Once the diagnosis is made, the doctor assigns a stage based on the test results as follows:
Stage 1. Tumors existing in the pancreas only
Stage 2. Tumors have spread to the tissues nearby of the abdomen or lymph nodes.
Stage 3. Cancer has spread to the major blood vessels and the lymph nodes.
Stage 4. Tumors have spread to the other organs such as the liver.
Treatment of pancreatic cancer
The treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of cancer. The treatment aims to kill the cancerous cells and prevent the spread of the disease. The most common complications during the treatment include bowel obstruction, liver failure, and weight loss.
When the tumor is confined to the pancreas, a surgery is recommended. Therefore, a surgery will be an option based on the exact location of cancer. When the tumor is confined to the head and neck of the pancreas, a procedure known as Whipple procedure is done. In this surgery, the first part of the ‘head’ of the pancreas and about 20 percent of the ‘body’ or the second part is removed. The bottom half of the bile duct and the first part of the intestine can also be removed.
Other options for treatment are explored when cancer spreads outside the pancreas. The radiation therapy uses the X-rays and high-energy beams to kill the cancer cells.
In other cases, other treatments might be combined with chemo which uses drugs that kill cancer to help avoid future growth of the cancer cells.
There are many patients who combine alternative measures with the medical treatments. Consult your doctor before you start these measures as they may interfere with some medications.
Meditation, light exercise, and yoga may promote a sense of well-being and make the patient better during the treatment.