Located above the belly button, in front of the spine is the pancreas. This is the very important organ that produces insulin, the hormone that regulates blood levels and makes the digestive enzymes which break down foods so your body can absorb the nutrients. Pancreatic cancer occurs when uncontrolled cell growth creates unhealthy masses and lumps to form. At most of the time, the pancreatic cancer symptoms are vague and may be missed causing the cancer to deteriorate. Pancreatic exocrine cancer and pancreatic endocrine cancer are two types of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
Known as the silent disease, pancreatic cancer symptoms are rare been seen in its early stages. More often than not, the symptoms that do present themselves are extremely vague. Depending on the location, type and stage of the cancer, there are several different symptoms that one may experience. These symptoms are not exclusive to pancreatic cancer and you should always consult your physician if any of the pancreatic cancer symptoms are present.
A tumor in the head of the pancreas can block the bile flowing from the gallbladder to the small intestine. This will cause a buildup of bilirubin in the blood, known as jaundice. Your skin and eyes will have a yellowish appearance. You may also experience some itchiness, unusually dark urine and or light, clay-colored stools.
2. Weight Loss
Weight loss can be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer that occurs without pain or change in digestion. This weight loss caused by either the cancer or the cancer treatment is known as cancer cachexia. It causes your body to burn more calories than usual creating a breakdown in muscle and a decreased appetite. This can become a very complex problem as it affects the way your body uses calories and protein.
One of the obvious pancreatic cancer symptoms is pain. A tumor that invades or involves nerves near the pancreas can cause pain in the upper abdomen and mid-back. You may also feel more pain when the tumor blocks the digestive system or you become constipated due to some pain medications.
4. Digestive Difficulties
The tumor may create digestive difficulties such as poor appetite and indigestion. Nausea and vomiting may also occur when a tumor in the pancreas presses against the stomach or small intestine causing food to remain in the stomach. Blockage of the pancreatic duct the pancreatic enzymes flow through or a change in the amount of pancreatic enzymes being produced also creates digestive difficulties.
5. Changes in Stools
Diarrhea and constipations are symptoms that you may experience with pancreatic cancer, either due to the cancer itself or the medications. When you are diarrhea, the stool is loose, watery, oily, and may have a foul smell. Diarrhea will cause undigested food to pass quickly through your body not allowing the absorption of much needed nutrients and vitamins. When you are constipation, the stool is hard, dry and very difficult to pass. Most of the time constipation is caused in patients taking medications that will slow the passage of food through the intestines.
6. Blood Clots
Pancreatic cancer causes changes in the blood. These changes can lead to blood clots that can go unnoticed and not have any symptoms. Most of the time, they create swelling, pain and tenderness around the area. Deep vein thrombosis, also known as DVT, is a serious condition where blood clots form in the veins.
When your body stops making or improperly uses insulin, diabetes occurs. When insulin is not being produced or stops being effective your blood sugar levels will alter leaving you feeling ill and light headed. If you already have diabetes you may notice sudden changes in your blood sugar levels.
Ascites is when your abdomen has an abnormal accumulation of fluid. When the cancer spreads to your abdominal lining, it will cause your belly to become swollen and distended. Ascites is more prevalent in those who have the more advanced metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Causes and Risk Factors of Pancreatic Cancer
When mutations in your pancreas cells cause the cells to grow uncontrollably and live longer than normal cells, they build up into masses. The masses are tumors known as pancreatic cancer. Even though the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, there are several risk factors that increase the likelihood that one may develop pancreatic cancer.
Risk Factors of Pancreatic Cancer
There are many risk factors that will induce your pancreatic cancer or make your pancreatic cancer symptoms.
- Lifestyle-related factors
Smoking is thought to account for about 20%-30% of all pancreatic cancer with those who smoke being 2 times more likely to develop the cancer.
Diet is also thought to have an effect on pancreatic cancer. Even though it is unclear, eating more fruits and vegetables along with less red and processed meats may decrease your chances of developing pancreatic cancer.
- Disease-related factors
The risk is high in those who have chronic pancreatitis and even higher in those who have hereditary pancreatitis that causes recurrent inflammation in the pancreas.
People who have had diabetes for more than five years or are obese are also at a greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
- Other risk factors
Your family’s history of other cancers and diseases increases your risk of pancreatic cancer as well as your family’s ethnicity. African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jews tend to be at a higher risk. Your age and gender may also be a risk factor. Those over the age of 60 are at a higher risk and those who are male are at an even higher risk.
Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer
As with any cancer, the first goal of treatment is to eliminate the cancer. If that is not an option, then preventative measures will be taken to prevent further growth and prevent the cancer from spreading. Treatments most likely will not help at the advanced stages of pancreatic cancer. In these cases the doctor will make you as comfortable as possible by helping to relieve the symptoms.
1. Medical Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer
- Targeted therapy
Drugs that target specific abnormalities within the cancer cells are used in targeted therapy. Erlotinib blocks the cancer cells' growth and is most commonly used with chemotherapy (mentioned in the following point) in those with the advanced stages of pancreatic cancer.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs, either taken orally or injected into a vein, to help kill cancer cells. When used in combination with radiation, it is commonly referred to as chemoradiation and is used to treat the cancer that has spread from the pancreas to nearby organs. If the cancer is in its advanced stages chemotherapy may be used on its own or with targeted therapy.
- Radiation therapy
High-energy beams moves around you are used to destroy cancer cells during radiation therapy. It may be used as a standalone therapy used before, during or after surgery, and it is quite commonly combined with chemotherapy. If your cancer can’t be treated with surgery, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy and chemotherapy together.
If the cancer is confined to the pancreas, then surgery may be an option. There are two types of surgery: surgery for the tumors located in the pancreatic head and surgery for the tumors located in the pancreatic tail and body.
The Whipple procedure is for the cancer located in the head of the pancreas. It will remove the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct. The recovery is several weeks along with risks of infection bleeding, nausea and vomiting. Distal pancreatectomy is the removal of the pancreatic tail, a small portion of the pancreatic body, and sometimes the spleen. The surgery may cause bleeding and infection.
- Clinical trials
The goal of a clinical trial is to test a new form of treatment. These can prove to be beneficial or may have serious side effects. These trials are closely monitored to ensure they are conducted as safely as possible.
2. Living With Pancreatic Cancer
Though there are not any easy solutions for those living with this life threatening illness, they can benefit from the following suggestions:
- Get enough information about the disease
Take time to learn about your cancer and treatment options by asking your doctor for details and trusted sources, such as the National Cancer Institute and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
- Seek help from those around you
Build a network of friends, family, counselors, medical social worker and religious counselors. Those closest to you may feel helpless and uncertain as well; knowing that they can support you to complete simple task will help them and you find comfort.
- Join cancer support groups
Try to find individual or groups of cancer survivors. They can provide you with support and a unique insight into your own cancer.
- Take hospice under consideration
Hospice is a great option for family and friends to care for you with the help of trained nurses, social workers, which will be a great relief and comfort.
Watch a video to know more about the types and treatment of pancreatic cancer: