If you — or a loved one — have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you likely have a lot of questions about how the disease will affect your life. A diagnosis of cancer can feel overwhelming, but education is key. The more you know about this type of cancer, the better informed you’ll be to make smart decisions about your care. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the disease.
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
This type of cancer occurs when cancerous cells form in the tissues of the pancreas, an organ located in the abdomen behind the stomach. The most common type of this condition is exocrine pancreatic cancer, also called adenocarcinoma, in which the cancer occurs in the ducts that carry pancreatic juices and aid digestion. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t often cause symptoms in its early stages. For this reason, pancreatic cancer typically is detected at a later stage, when symptoms develop.
Pancreatic cancer symptoms
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
Who Is at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 50,000 men and women are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States annually. The average person has a one in 67 chance of developing the disease, but certain factors can increase the odds. For example, you’re more likely to be diagnosed with it if you are older than age 45, male, or African American, if you are overweight or obese, if you smoke, and if you have a family history of the condition.
How Is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?
The location of the pancreas means that the cancer may go undetected until it has advanced or spread to other parts of the body. If your doctor suspects that you have pancreatic cancer, he or she may use a variety of tests to diagnose the disease. These can include:
- A physical exam
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- Needle biopsy
How Is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?
The treatment of pancreatic cancer depends on a number of factors, including the stage of the disease (how far it has advanced). The main treatment options include:
Pancreatic cancer surgery
Depending on your eligibility, your doctor may recommend Whipple surgery, which involves removing the head, or right-hand portion, of the pancreas, as well as parts of the small intestine, gallbladder, bile duct, and sometimes a portion of the stomach. Other types of surgery for pancreatic cancer include distal pancreatectomy (removal of the “tail” of the pancreas, as well as the spleen) and total pancreatectomy (removal of the entire pancreas and spleen). If the cancer has spread too far to be removed, your doctor may suggest palliative interventions, which cannot cure the disease but instead helps relieve symptoms.
Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer can also be treated with chemotherapy, drugs that kill cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be given before and after surgery, or when surgery isn’t possible. It is sometimes used in conjunction with radiation, high-energy x-rays that kill cancer cells. Likewise, you may receive radiation before and after surgery, with or without chemotherapy, or to ease symptoms in advanced stages of the disease. Your health care team can recommend the treatment that’s right for you.
To learn more about the latest developments in the field of treatment for cancer, including pancreatic cancer, visit the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center online or make an appointment to speak with an expert.