Editor’s note: As pancreatic cancer continues to make headlines, we thought we would review its basics for those who are new to the disease or anyone who wants a refresher.
What is a pancreas?
The pancreas is a gland, about six inches long, located deep in the abdomen, behind the stomach. It produces enzymes that help with digestion and secretes hormones that control the levels of sugar in the blood.
What is cancer?
Cancer is a mutated group of cells in the body that grows and divides in an uncontrolled manner. Cancer cells sometimes spread from the original cancer site to form tumors in other parts of the body. Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells within the pancreas grow out of control and form a tumor.
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer may cause only vague, unexplained symptoms. Pain (usually in the abdomen or back), weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or eyes) with or without itching, loss of appetite, nausea, changes in stool, pancreatitis and recent-onset diabetes are symptoms that may indicate pancreatic cancer. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, we urge you to speak to your doctor immediately and reference pancreatic cancer.
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
There is not one standard diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. However, there are several tests that a doctor may use to confirm or rule out the disease. These may include imaging studies such as a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) or endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). A biopsy can also determine if a tumor on the pancreas has cancer cells present.
How is pancreatic cancer classified?
Pancreatic tumors are classified into two groups by the type of cell in which they start – exocrine and neuroendocrine (endocrine) tumors. More than 90% of pancreatic cancers are classified as exocrine tumors. Additionally, the doctor will describe the extent of cancer in the body through staging. Stage is a measure of how far the cancer has grown, using size of the tumor, lymph node involvement and locations to which it has spread. Stages range from I to IV, with stage I describing the earliest form of cancer.
What treatments are available for pancreatic cancer?
Treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of the disease and the patient’s general health. Patients may be treated with standard (approved) treatments or may participate in clinical trials. Standard treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Clinical trials investigate new treatments for pancreatic cancer. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends clinical trials at diagnosis and during every treatment decision.
How many people get pancreatic cancer each year?
Approximately 56,770 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States in 2019. Pancreatic cancer is the ninth most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and the 10th most commonly diagnosed in men in the United States.
Why is pancreatic cancer difficult to detect early?
The pancreas is located deep in the abdomen, so it is difficult for a doctor to see or feel the tumor during a physical exam. Additionally, symptoms of pancreatic cancer are not always obvious and usually develop gradually. If a person has symptoms that suggest pancreatic cancer, we encourage them to speak to their healthcare team.