Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer. It affects your pancreas. Your pancreas is an organ. It is located behind your stomach and in front of your spine. Your pancreas produces juices that break down food and control blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose early.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include the following:

  • Jaundice (yellowing) of the skin and eyes.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Back pain.
  • Weight loss (without trying).
  • Poor appetite.
  • Dark, brown urine.
  • Light-colored or greasy stools (poop).
  • Itchy skin.
  • Nausea, vomiting.
  • Enlarged gallbladder or liver.
  • Blood clots.
  • Diabetes (it’s rare that pancreatic cancer causes diabetes if you didn’t already have it).

What causes pancreatic cancer?

No one knows what causes pancreatic cancer. There are certain risk factors. This includes

  • smoking
  • obesity
  • inactivity
  • age
  • workplace exposure to chemicals
  • gender
  • race
  • family history, inherited genetic syndromes
    • hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome (BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes)
    • hereditary breast cancer
    • familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (skin and eye melanomas)
    • familial pancreatitis
    • Lynch syndrome
    • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
  • diabetes
  • chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • unhealthy diet
  • coffee
  • alcohol
  • certain infections (H. pylori or Hepatitis B)

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

The pancreas is buried deep inside the body. This can make an early diagnosis difficult. If your doctor suspects you have pancreatic cancer, he or she might do the following:

  • Perform a physical exam (your doctor will feel your stomach for the presence of large tumors).
  • Order imaging tests. This can include an ultrasound, CT, MRI, or PET scan.
  • Order a blood test. The specific test is called a CA 19-9 blood marker test.
  • Do a biopsy (surgically remove a sample from the pancreas).

Can pancreatic cancer be prevented or avoided?

Pancreatic cancer cannot be prevented or avoided. However, you can make lifestyle changes to lower certain risk factors. Those include:

  • Get moving. Exercise daily. Strive for 20 to 30 minutes per day.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Control your diabetes.
  • Lose weight.
  • Eat healthy.
  • Talk to your doctor about any genetic risk factors you may have.

Pancreatic cancer treatment

Most pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed late (Stage 4). This means they likely spread to other areas of the body. Depending on the stage of the cancer, surgery is possible. Most of the time, chemotherapy and radiation is used to treat pancreatic cancer.

Living with pancreatic cancer

If the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is typically not good. The average survival rate after diagnosis is 18 months. Therefore, the focus is on palliative care. This refers to quality of life and end of life care. This goal is to make a person comfortable and pain free.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Is pancreatic cancer common in younger people?
  • Does processed food damage your pancreas?
  • Does diabetes medicine protect against pancreatic cancer?