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Home > Health Library > Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the pancreas. The pancreas is a small organ located deep in the belly, behind your stomach.
The pancreas makes juices that help your body digest food. It also makes insulin and other hormones that help control your blood sugar.
There are two main types of pancreatic tumors: exocrine and endocrine. The type of tumor depends on which type of cells are involved. Exocrine (say "EX-oh-krin") cells make digestive juices. Endocrine (say "EN-doh-krin") cells make insulin. Most people with pancreatic cancer have exocrine tumors, which grow faster than endocrine tumors.
Treatments are more successful when cancer is found early. But in most cases, pancreatic cancer has already spread by the time it is found. Still, treatment may help you feel better, and it helps some people live longer.
Experts don't know what causes pancreatic cancer. But they do know that changes in the body's DNA play a role in many cancers.
Symptoms usually don't begin until the cancer has spread. Then, symptoms may include pain in the upper belly or the back, unexpected weight loss, loss of appetite, extreme tiredness, or jaundice.
If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, you may have some tests. These may include lab tests, such as blood tests, or an imaging test, such as a CT scan or MRI. You may also have a biopsy. This means taking a tissue sample from the pancreas to see if it has cancer cells.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. Surgery is done if all of the cancer can be removed. Other treatments include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Chemotherapy and radiation may be given together. (This is called chemoradiation.)
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Your risk of getting pancreatic cancer is higher if you:
Pancreatic cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms at first. It's silent and painless. Symptoms usually don't begin until the cancer has spread. They may include:
Of course, there are other conditions that cause these symptoms, so they don't necessarily mean you have cancer. But it's important to talk to your doctor if you have any of these problems.
Pancreatic cancer happens when abnormal cells grow in the pancreas. It's usually found after it has spread from the pancreas to other parts of the body. You may need medicines to control pain, help you digest food, and manage your blood sugar. Surgery, radiation therapy, and other treatments are often needed.
To look for or diagnose pancreatic cancer, your doctor will ask you about your medical history and your family history. You will get a physical exam. Some of these tests will also be done:
Your doctor may also order a biopsy. This means getting a sample of tissue from the pancreas to see if it contains cancer cells. Types of biopsies include:
Your doctor uses different tests to stage pancreatic cancer. Staging is a way to describe how far the cancer has spread.
You may have one or more of these imaging tests:
These tests can show how big the tumor is, where it's located, and if it's spread to other parts of the body.
Your doctor may do a procedure called a staging laparoscopy to see if the cancer has spread outside of the pancreas. Through a small cut in your belly, your doctor uses a thin, lighted tool to look at the pancreas. Your doctor may also take a tissue sample (biopsy) to look for signs of cancer and tumor markers.
Knowing the stage of the cancer can help guide your treatment.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. Surgery is done if all of the cancer can be removed. Other treatments include radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Sometimes a clinical trial may be a good choice.
Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.
Surgery may be an option. But in most cases, the cancer has already spread so far that not all of it can be removed. If all of the cancer can't be removed, other treatments are used. These may include radiation therapy or medicines.
The types of surgery include:
During surgery, the doctor may also take out nearby lymph nodes to check them for cancer.
This uses high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. It may be used before or after surgery.
Radiation may be given by using a machine outside the body (external radiation). Or it may be given by placing substances inside the body (internal radiation). External radiation is most often used for pancreatic cancer.
Medicines may be used to control the growth of cancer cells and to relieve symptoms. Medicines for pancreatic cancer include:
These medicines may be given in different ways. For example, they may be taken as a pill or injected into a vein (IV).
Clinical trials are research studies that test new treatments to find out how well they work. Your medical team can tell you if there's a clinical trial that might be right for you.
Pain is one of the main concerns of people with pancreatic cancer. But cancer pain can almost always be controlled. You and your doctor have several options to manage your pain.
Sometimes the tumor presses on and blocks the bile duct or upper intestine. This can cause jaundice and problems digesting food. A hollow tube called a stent may be placed to keep the bile duct open. Or a surgical bypass may be done to create a pathway around the blocked area.
Palliative care is a type of care for people who have a serious illness. It's different from care to cure your illness, called curative treatment. Palliative care provides an extra layer of support that can improve your quality of life—not just in your body, but also in your mind and spirit. Sometimes palliative care is combined with curative treatment.
The kind of care you get depends on what you need. Your goals guide your care. You can get both palliative care and care to treat your illness. You don't have to choose one or the other.
Palliative care can help you manage symptoms, pain, or side effects from treatment. It may help you and those close to you better understand your illness, talk more openly about your feelings, or decide what treatment you want or don't want. It can also help you communicate better with your doctors, nurses, family, and friends.
It can be hard to live with an illness that cannot be cured. But if your health is getting worse, you may want to make decisions about end-of-life care. Planning for the end of your life does not mean that you are giving up. It is a way to make sure that your wishes are met. Clearly stating your wishes can make it easier for your loved ones. Making plans while you are still able may also ease your mind and make your final days less stressful and more meaningful.
Some people use complementary therapies along with medical treatment. They may help relieve the symptoms and stress of cancer or the side effects of cancer treatment. Therapies that may be helpful include:
Talk with your doctor about any of these options you would like to try. And let your doctor know if you are already using any complementary therapies. They are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment. But they may help you feel better and cope better with treatment.
Relationships take on new importance when you're faced with cancer. Your family and friends can help support you. You may also want to look beyond those who are close to you.
Remember that the people around you want to support you, and asking for help isn't a sign of weakness.
Your friends and family want to help, but some of them may not know what to do. It may help to make a list. For example, you might ask them to:
Places to turn for support include:
Current as of:
September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineJoseph O'Donnell MD - Hematology, Oncology
Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Joseph O'Donnell MD - Hematology, Oncology
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