Pancreatic Cancer

  • Basics

    Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably in the pancreas Figure 01.

    Click to enlarge: The pancreas

    Figure 01. The pancreas

    Found behind the stomach, the pancreas is a gland involved in digestion. The pancreas produces digestive juices that enter the small intestine to break down food. In pancreatic cancer, abnormal pancreatic cells grow out of control and damage tissue, impairing the body's ability to digest foods and sugars.

    In some cases, these cells enter the bloodstream to form new tumors in other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes and the liver. Of all pancreatic cancers, 95% begin in the area of the pancreas that helps produce juices to digest foods, while 5% begin in cells (islet cells) that produce hormones such as insulin, which breaks down sugars.

    Pancreatic cancer is the seventh leading cause of cancer in the U.S., and the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimated that 33,730 new cases of pancreatic cancer would have been reported in the U.S. in 2006. Although the rates of pancreatic cancer have declined in men over the past 20 years, the rates in women have remained constant. Nonetheless, pancreatic cancer most commonly affects males, occurring most often in people over the age of 45.

    Islet cell cancer is a type of pancreatic cancer that is rare compared to other pancreatic cancers. The islet cells of the pancreas are small clusters of cells that release hormones such as insulin and glucagon. These hormones are necessary to control the amount of sugar in a person's blood. Most islet cell tumors are not cancerous.

    Although they usually do not provide a cure for people with pancreatic cancer, treatment options are available to extend survival and/or relieve symptoms Table 01. In most cases, traditional treatment options for pancreatic cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Based on the patient's age and fitness, as well as the stage of the disease, the doctor will indicate the appropriate treatment regimen.

    Table 1.  Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

    Treatment Description Side effects
    Surgery Removal of all or part of the pancreas and the affected surrounding tissue Pain, weakness, digestive problems. If the pancreas is removed, the patient will become diabetic
    Radiation Exposing the affected area to high-energy rays to control the growth of cancer cells Tiredness, hair loss, redness, itchiness, and tenderness of skin in treated area; nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, digestive problems
    Chemotherapy Treating the patient with drugs to control tumor growth Depending on the agent used"
    Treatment Description Side effects
    Surgery Removal of all or part of the pancreas and the affected surrounding tissue Pain, weakness, digestive problems. If the pancreas is removed, the patient will become diabetic
    Radiation Exposing the affected area to high-energy rays to control the growth of cancer cells Tiredness, hair loss, redness, itchiness, and tenderness of skin in treated area; nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, digestive problems
    Chemotherapy Treating the patient with drugs to control tumor growth Depending on the agent used: low white blood cell count, infections, bruises or easy bleeding, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, mouth sores
    Biological Uses the body's natural ability to fight disease (e.g., a vaccine) Flu-like symptoms including chills, fever, muscle aches, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea; easy bruising or bleeding, rash, or swelling
  • Causes

    The cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, although there may be risk factors associated with the disease.

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