More than 55,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018. That is more than 150 people diagnosed every day.Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and the 11th most commonly diagnosed in men in the U.S.
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage your blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer typically spreads rapidly to nearby organs. It is seldom detected in its early stages. But for people with pancreatic cysts or a family history of pancreatic cancer, some screening steps might help detect a problem early. One sign of pancreatic cancer is diabetes, especially when it occurs with weight loss, jaundice or pain in the upper abdomen that spreads to the back.
Pancreatic tumors are either exocrine or neuroendocrine (endocrine) tumors. This is based on the type of cell they start in. Knowing the type of tumor is important because each type acts differently and responds to different treatments. Within these types, the biology of each tumor is different. Molecular profiling gives patients information about their tumor’s biology.
Signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don’t occur until the disease is advanced. They may include:
See your doctor if you experience unexplained weight loss or if you have persistent fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice, or other signs and symptoms that bother you. Many conditions can cause these symptoms, so your doctor may check for these conditions as well as for pancreatic cancer.
If your doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, he or she may have you undergo one or more of the following tests:
If your doctor confirms a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he or she tries to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. Using information from staging tests, your doctor assigns your pancreatic cancer a stage, which helps determine what treatments are most likely to benefit to you. The stages of pancreatic cancer are indicated by Roman numerals ranging from 0 to IV. The lowest stages indicate that the cancer is confined to the pancreas. By stage IV, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage and location of the cancer as well as on your overall health and personal preferences. For most people, the first goal of pancreatic cancer treatment is to eliminate the cancer, when possible. When that isn’t an option, the focus may be on improving your quality of life and preventing the cancer from growing or causing more harm. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these. When pancreatic cancer is advanced and these treatments aren’t likely to offer a benefit, your doctor will offer symptom relief (palliative care) that makes you as comfortable as possible.
Surgery: Operations used in people with pancreatic cancer include:
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to help kill cancer cells. These drugs can be injected into a vein or taken orally. You may receive one chemotherapy drug or a combination of them. Chemotherapy can also be combined with radiation therapy (chemoradiation). Chemoradiation is typically used to treat cancer that has spread beyond the pancreas, but only to nearby organs and not to distant regions of the body. At specialized medical centers, this combination may be used before surgery to help shrink the tumor. Sometimes it is used after surgery to reduce the risk that pancreatic cancer may recur. In people with advanced pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy is often used to control cancer growth and prolong survival.
Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as those made from X-rays and protons, to destroy cancer cells. You may receive radiation treatments before or after cancer surgery, often in combination with chemotherapy. Or your doctor may recommend a combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments when your cancer can’t be treated surgically. Radiation therapy usually comes from a machine that moves around you, directing radiation to specific points on your body (external beam radiation). In specialized medical centers, radiation therapy may be delivered during surgery (intraoperative radiation). Radiation therapy traditionally uses X-rays to treat cancer. Some medical centers offer proton beam radiation therapy, which may be a treatment option for some people with advanced pancreatic cancer.
Palliative Care: Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer. Palliative care is provided by our skilled team of doctors, nurses and specially trained professionals, aimed at improving the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving. Learn more about San Cristóbal Palliative Care.
San Cristobal Cancer Institute offers a wide array of options to help our patients feel calm and supported during the process of screening, diagnosis and treatment, as well as getting back to life after cancer. Browse our alternatives for patients – including financial aid for those eligible – in our Patient Resources section.
If you’d like to learn more about Pancreatic Cancer through our San Cristóbal Education Resources, attend our events or learn about our Cancer Center, please contact us.
Education is one of our strongest tools at San Cristóbal Cancer Institute, empowering patients and their families with complete and updated information about more than a dozen types of cancer and providing first-hand knowledge through our dedicated team of cancer experts. If you’d like to know more, please get in touch with us. We look forward to offering you and your family powerful cancer awareness and the most comprehensive care.