Learn more about pancreatic cancer.

Many people understand the basics of how the heart works, and the lungs, and other organs, but the pancreas is not as well known. This organ, is, however, one of the more important parts of the digestive system. Without it, the system would not function.

The pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose (sugar) levels. It also generates digestive juices that help the body break down food and absorb nutrients. Cancer of the pancreas, therefore, can be a devastating diagnosis.

The incidence rate of pancreatic cancer is increasing; there are now about 55,000 cases annually in the United States. Whether you’ve received a pancreatic cancer diagnosis or want to learn how to help prevent one, we’ll tell you what you should know about the risk factors, symptoms, and treatment for pancreatic cancer.

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Facts About Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas sits deep in the abdomen behind the stomach and intestines. “Because it’s nestled amongst other organs far inside the abdomen, doctors usually can’t feel a growing tumor, so when symptoms do appear, the cancer is often advanced,” said Amer Zureikat, MD, co-director of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Pancreatic Cancer Program.

That’s the bad news. The good news? “Finding pancreatic cancer in the advanced stages does not mean that it can’t be treated,” Dr. Zureikat said. “It can.”

First, though, your doctor may recommend some tests to confirm the diagnosis. “These can include simple tests such as a physical exam or a blood test, or they could include radiologic tests such as an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI,” said Dr. Zureikat. “Often, we need to biopsy the tumor to confirm the diagnosis. That involves an invasive test where we put a scope into the esophagus and take a sample from the pancreatic mass.”

Once your doctor’s suspicion is confirmed, it’s time to discuss your options and treatment for pancreatic cancer.

The most common surgical operation to remove a pancreatic cancer is called the Whipple procedure, which involves removing the right side of the pancreas, or approximately 50 percent of the organ.

This procedure can be performed with the assistance of a robot that magnifies the optics and stabilizes the surgeon’s movements. “UPMC was one of the pioneers in this type of robotic surgery and is the leading center nationwide in the number of robotic Whipples performed,” said Dr. Zureikat. “It is the same as a more invasive open operation; the only difference is that it’s done with smaller incisions, which can lead to faster recovery and less blood loss.”

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Risk Factors

As with many cancers, the earlier a pancreatic tumor is detected, the higher the probability of successful treatment. Here are several pancreatic cancer symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice
  • Weight loss

To reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, know your risk factors and control the ones you can: your weight and your alcohol and tobacco use. People with diabetes should manage their condition carefully.

Age, sex, and genetics may also affect your risk, but these factors are out of your control. “Approximately 90 percent of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are older than 55,” said Dr. Zureikat. “Men are more likely to be afflicted than women.”Family history can play a role, so make sure to ask your doctor about the need for genetic screening at the time of your visit.

For more helpful facts about pancreatic cancer, and for answers to your specific questions about a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, call the experts at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at 412-647-2811.