The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen that makes digestive juices, insulin, and other hormones. The digestive juices flow through ducts into the intestine. Most pancreatic cancers occur in these ducts.
About 1 in 77 people will develop pancreatic cancer over their lifetime. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer deaths in Canada. The risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about the same for both men and women.
Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called a “silent disease” because it is difficult to detect and symptoms do not usually appear until the cancer has grown for quite some time.
Cancer is caused by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. When these cells grow and form a mass it is called a tumour. When pancreatic cancer cells break away and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system, they can spread the cancer. The spread of cancer is called metastasis, and places where the cancer has spread are called metastases.
The reason for the development of cancer cells in the pancreas is not known, but research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than others.
Studies have shown that the following factors increase risk for pancreatic cancer:
Of these risk factors, smoking is the most significant, accounting for an estimated one-third of pancreatic cancer cases.
The early stages of pancreatic cancer often have no symptoms. As the cancer grows, the following symptoms may occur:
If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, they will consider your medical history and conduct a physical examination. Your doctor may also order the following tests:
Once pancreatic cancer has been diagnosed, your doctor will determine how far it has progressed in a process called staging. Staging may require more testing. This will help your doctor determine the most appropriate treatment.
Although it may not be possible to prevent pancreatic cancer, you can reduce your risk for developing the disease by not smoking. Lowering your risk for type 2 diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight, following a healthy diet, and being physically active may also reduce your risk for pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer can be cured only if it is found at an early stage, before it has spread to other parts of the body. However, about 80% to 90% of people with pancreatic cancer have advanced disease by the time it is diagnosed. For advanced disease, treatment cannot cure the cancer but may improve the quality of life and extend life.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Your treatment plan will depend on your general health, the stage of the cancer, and whether the tumour can be surgically removed.
Surgery to remove the cancer is usually the first choice for treatment. The following are different types of surgery to remove pancreatic cancer:
Some surgical procedures are performed to help with symptoms when pancreatic cancer cannot be completely removed. A metal tube or stent can be placed into the bile duct to prevent or relieve a blockage. Bypass procedures may help when the bile duct or stomach is blocked.
After surgery, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy (treatment with medications that kill cancer cells) or radiation therapy (high-energy X-rays that kill cancer cells). These treatments may also be used in those cases where surgery is not possible due to the location of the cancer.
If cure or control of the disease isn’t possible, treatment will focus on improving quality of life by controlling pain and other problems and symptoms caused by the disease.
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