What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer, also called pancreatic carcinoma in medical terms, occurs when an overgrowth of harmful cells attacks the pancreas and creates tumors. The pancreas is a protein-producing organ situated behind a patient’s stomach. Its main function is to produce and release special enzymes into the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) that will promote nutrient and fat absorption. Cancer can grow in the cells making up the tissue of the pancreas as well as in tiny structures called islet cells whose main purpose is to produce hormones such as insulin.
What Causes Pancreatic Cancer?
As with most cancers, a definite cause of pancreatic cancer has not yet been identified by medical researchers. However, statistics show that patients who suffer from either diabetes or pancreatitis (inflammation of pancreatic tissue) are more likely to develop it. In general, pancreatic cancer affects women more so that it does men, especially if the patient smokes or has a history of pancreatic disorders in the family. The disease increases with age.
What Are Some Common Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms?
Since cancer is essentially a very harmful tumor, it usually grows rapidly through its early stages without producing many severe symptoms. It’s only when the cancerous tumor starts to interfere with bodily function that the affected patient may notice something wrong. Unfortunately, this means that in the majority of pancreatic cancer cases, the disease is very far along before it is detected and is able to be treated at all. Contact a doctor if you experience any combination of these symptoms, as a regular endoscopy test, ERCP, ultrasound or scan may lead to early diagnosis and a better chance of survival:
- Unusually colored urine or stool—excessively dark stool can be a sign that the patient is bleeding internally, while dark-colored urine could be a sign that something with the fluid-filtering organs has gone awry.
- Jaundice—jaundice is marked by a yellowing of the skin around the eyes and could be a sign of organ dysfunction.
- Pain in the abdomen or back, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, fatigue or sudden weight loss without trying
What is the Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate?
Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of cancerous tumors in the pancreas are detected too late, when surgery to remove and “cure” the disease completely is no longer an option for patients. Although radiation therapy and chemotherapy may help control symptoms and keep the cancer patient alive for a longer period of time while the disease is in remission, they are only limited ways to suppress the disease temporarily. Sometimes, minor surgery can relieve pain and partially cure the disease is available. If the pancreatic cancer has spread to the kidneys, stomach or other organs, the patient will most likely pass within 1 year. The vast majority of patients fall into or close to this category, with 95 percent of pancreatic cancer cases ending in death within 5 years of diagnosis. If caught early pancreatic cancer can be resected and completely cured.
Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014