Pancreatic cancer is a cancer developed in the tissues of the pancreas, which primary function is to secrete digestive enzymes (e.g. bile) and hormones (e.g. insulin). It may originate either in the exocrine or endocrine tissues of the pancreas though the former comprises 95 percent cases. Also, more than 70 percent of these cancers are located in the head and neck portion of the pancreas.
Men are at a higher risk of developing this cancer than women. Other risk factors include genetic predisposition, older age (above 60 years), a poor diet (that lacks fruits and vegetables), smoking, being obese, diabetes, and preexisting pancreas problems (chronic pancreatitis).
The number of people diagnosed with this cancer is slowly increasing since the last few years, and the worst fact that concerns all of us is that it is asymptomatic in the early stages. Hence, early diagnosis of this cancer is very difficult and rare. By the time it is diagnosed, it is already in the end stages. As per medical data, this cancer constitutes approximately 6 percent deaths that are related to cancer, and it is listed as the fourth leading cause of death.
With cancer of the pancreas, the cancerous cells first spread to the lymph nodes located adjacent to the affected pancreas, which then metastasize to the liver and other organs including the lungs, stomach, duodenum, and colon. Very rarely, this cancer spreads to the skin, brain, and bones. At the time of diagnosis, more than 25 percent patients are identified with regional spread, while about 52 percent patients have distant spread.
The end stage in which the cancer metastasizes to other organs is also referred to as metastatic pancreatic cancer or stage 4. This cancer is not only symptomless at the onset of the disease, but the later signs and symptoms are also varied, non-specific, and confusing. Very often, the signs of stage 4 pancreatic cancer mimic other medical problems. The noticeable symptoms are:
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
- Severe skin itching
- Sharp abdominal pain (mostly in the upper portion)
- Loss of appetite
- Sudden loss of weight
- Digestive problems
- Nausea and dizziness
- Excessive bloating
- Diarrhea and vomiting
Thus, the aforementioned symptoms are very much similar to other diseases. In order to rule out this cancer, imaging tests like ultrasound, computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging will be taken for the abdominal portion. The doctor may also perform a biopsy test for confirmation of this cancer.
The treatment methods are more or less similar to other types of cancer. Based on the cancer stage and location, the physician may recommend appropriate surgical procedures for treatment. However, pancreatic cancer in its end stage is rarely in an operable state. Rather, chemotherapy medication and intravenous injections are delivered to relieve pain and extend the survival period of the patients.
Like most severe forms of cancer, the prognosis of this one is very poor. However, the survival rate of patients has increased significantly in the last few years. After diagnosis with this cancer, about 30 percent patients survive for 3 years, while approximately 5 percent patients live for 5 years. Medical researches are being conducted to help detect this disease at an early stage, and also to develop effective therapeutic intervention for longer survival of the patients.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.