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Pancreatic Cancer

Introduction

The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. With primary functions to aid digestion and regulate blood sugar levels, the pancreas isn't felt in the body making pancreatic cancer hard to detect until progression to the later stages.

Causes

Pancreatic cancer occurs when abnormal cells form tumours in the pancreatic tissue. Eventually, cancerous cells dominate healthy cells and cause the pancreas to stop functioning.

Exact causes of pancreatic cancer are unknown, but the following have been identified as risk factors:

  • Smoking.
  • Obesity.
  • Lack of exercise.
  • Poor nutrition.
  • Alcoholism or heavy drinking.
  • Diabetes.
  • Liver damage.
  • Family history.

Symptoms

Symptoms of primary pancreatic cancer don't usually present until the later stages or unless it spreads.

Common symptoms include:

  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Persistent abdominal pain.
  • Jaundice.
  • Increased depression and anxiety.

Diagnosis

Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer significantly improves patient outcomes. The following tests will identify the location of the tumours and the stage of cancer to ascertain the most effective treatment program.

CT and MRI scans

Imaging technology will give a detailed picture of the pancreas to identify the tumours.  Images will also identify if the pancreatic cancer is primary or secondary cancer which will help determine treatment options.

Endoscopic ultrasound

A tube with a camera attached is inserted through the mouth to the stomach to get a clearer view of the pancreas.

Biopsy

A small part of the pancreas is removed by inserting a small needle into the skin. The biopsy is analysed for signs of cancer.

Blood tests

Markers which indicate pancreatic cancer are visible on simple blood tests.

Treatment

If pancreatic cancer is diagnosed in stage one (meaning it hasn't spread to any other organs), treatment outcomes can be positive.

The treatment program will depend on the size and location of the tumours and may include one or more of the following:

Pancreaticoduodenectomy

Otherwise known as the Whipple procedure, depending on the location of the tumour, the head of the pancreas may be surgically removed. The bile duct and parts of the intestine can also be removed if the tumour extends into those areas.

Radiotherapy

If the tumour has grown outside of the pancreas, or if there are cancerous cells present after surgery, radiation therapy is the use of high-intensity X-rays and gamma rays to kill the remaining cancer cells.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is normally an outpatient procedure where the patient is injected with chemicals that directly kill unhealthy cells. It will take more than one chemotherapy session to completely remove a tumour.

Early detection is essential to improve chances of a full recovery. Always seek medical attention if you experience persistent, unexplained symptoms.