What is it?
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and produces hormones that help manage your blood sugar.
Pancreatic cancer is seldom detected at its early stages when it’s most curable. This is because it often doesn’t cause symptoms until after it has spread to other organs.
What are the symptoms?
- Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
- Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
- Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- Light-colored stools
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that’s becoming more difficult to control
- Blood clots
How is it diagnosed?
Imaging tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer include ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and, sometimes, positron emission tomography (PET) scans.
An endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) uses an ultrasound device to make images of your pancreas from inside your abdomen. The device is passed through a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) down your esophagus and into your stomach in order to obtain the images.
A biopsy is a procedure to remove a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope. Most often the tissue is collected during an EUS by passing special tools through the endoscope.
Your doctor may test your blood for specific proteins (tumor markers) shed by pancreatic cancer cells. One tumor marker test used in pancreatic cancer is called CA19-9. It may be helpful in understanding how the cancer responds to treatment. But the test isn’t always reliable because some people with pancreatic cancer don’t have elevated CA19-9 levels, making the test less helpful.
How is it treated?
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 limiting 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 health care provider will focus on symptom relief (palliative care) to keep you as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.
Are there any complications?
Some complications of pancreatic cancer include:
- Weight loss
- Bowel obstruction