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Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is an organ about six inches long and two inches wide, located behind the stomach. It makes pancreatic enzymes, which break down fats and proteins in the foods you eat so the body can digest them. It also contains clusters of cells called islets, which make hormones like insulin that help regulate the amount of sugar in the blood.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is caused by tumors that can form in the pancreas, detected through the use of different medical and imaging tests. Pancreatic Cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in men and women in the US. Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells grow out of control.

At the GI/Hepatobiliary Cancer Multidisciplinary Clinic, oncologists at Beaumont can develop individualized treatment plans that incorporate the latest therapies, including treatments that target cancer cells while sparing normal cells, immunotherapy and drugs that inhibit tumor and blood vessel growth.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, include:

  • age - most pancreatic cancer occurs in people over the age of 45.
  • smoking - heavy cigarette smokers are two or three times more likely than non-smokers to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity and lack of exercise - very overweight people are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, as are those who don't get much exercise.
  • diabetes - pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes than in those who do not.
  • gender - more men than women are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • race - African Americans are more likely than Asians, Hispanics, or Caucasians to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • family history - the risk for developing pancreatic cancer triples if a person's mother, father, or a sibling had the disease.
  • chronic pancreatitis - this condition of the pancreas has been linked with increased risk for pancreatic cancer.
  • Stomach problems - having too much stomach acid or having bacteria called H. pylori in the stomach may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver -cirrhosis is a scarring of the liver. It happens in people with liver damage from things like hepatitis and alcohol use. People with cirrhosis seem to have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Work exposure - heavy exposure at work to certain pesticides, dyes, and chemicals may increase the risk of getting cancer of the pancreas.
  • Chronic pancreatitis - this is a long-term inflammation of the pancreas. It is linked with a slightly higher risk of pancreatic cancer, but most people with this condition do not get pancreatic cancer. A small number of cases of chronic pancreatitis appear to be due to a gene mutation (defect). People with this form of chronic pancreatitis seem to have a high lifetime risk for getting pancreatic cancer.

There are several types of pancreatic cancers, including the following:

  • adenocarcinoma of the pancreas - the most common pancreatic cancer, which occurs in the lining of the pancreatic duct.
  • cystadenocarcinoma - a rare pancreatic cancer.
  • acinar cell carcinoma - a rare pancreatic cancer.

Some benign (noncancerous) tumors in the pancreas include the following:

  • insulinoma - a rare pancreatic tumor that secretes insulin, the hormone that lowers glucose levels in the blood.
  • gastrinoma - a tumor that secretes above average levels of gastrin, a hormone that stimulates the stomach to secrete acids and enzymes. Gastrinoma can cause peptic ulcers.
  • glucagonoma - a tumor that secretes glucagon, a hormone that raises levels of glucose in the blood, leading to a rash.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

The following are the other most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • pain in the upper abdomen or upper back
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • jaundice (yellow skin and eyes, and dark urine)
  • indigestion
  • nausea
  • vomiting

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.