Understanding Pancreatic Cancer and
How To Manage It

Your guide to understanding all aspects of pancreatic cancer

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really
stop to look fear in the face.You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

Eleanor Roosevelt 

Early detection and diagnosis always increase your chances of receiving successful treatment and beating all forms of cancer – especially pancreatic cancer. Detecting pancreatic cancer early will significantly boost your odds of survival.

You can read the section that details the various types of cancer before embarking on the journey to understand pancreatic cancer better. Read more

Let’s understand
the anatomy first

The pancreas is a small gland located behind the stomach and attached to the small intestine. It is an essential organ in the human body. It helps regulate blood sugars and enzymes that help the body digest food. It has both an exocrine (system to lubricate and protect the organs) and an endocrine (hormone secretion) function.

The pancreas has three main parts:

  • The head of the pancreas – the large, rounded section next to the first part of the small bowel.
  • The body of the pancreas – the middle portion
  • The tail of the pancreas – the narrow part on the left side of the body

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer begins in the lining of the pancreatic duct and spreads to the rest of the pancreas. Cancerous cells can then spread further into the pancreatic blood vessels and nerves, blocking the bile duct. At more advanced stages, the cancer can enter the lymphatic system and bloodstream, and spread to other organs.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

There are two main types of cancer that originate in the pancreas:

Exocrine pancreatic cancer

This type of pancreatic cancer originates in the exocrine cells, which make up the exocrine gland and the ducts of the pancreas. This type of pancreatic cancer can be further classified as follows:

Adenocarcinoma of the cervix

The most common type of pancreatic cancer, it occurs in the lining of the pancreatic ducts

Squamous cell carcinoma

This is an extremely rare form of pancreatic cells as it is made purely of squamous cells, which are typically not seen in the pancreas

Adenosquamous carcinoma

A rare form of pancreatic cancer, it shows characteristics of both adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma

Colloid carcinoma

Another rare type, colloid carcinomas develop from benign cysts in the pancreas

Neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer

This type of pancreatic cancer develops from cells in the endocrine gland of the pancreas, which secretes hormones such as insulin and glucagon. This type of pancreatic cancer is quite rare.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Clinical practitioners and researchers do not know the exact causes of pancreatic cancer. There are certain risk factors (detailed below) that can increase your chance of developing it; however, having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get pancreatic cancer. On the other hand, having no risk factors also does not mean you will not get the disease. Pancreatic cancer is likely to be caused by a combination of these factors, rather than just one.

What are the Risk Factors?

Although clinicians do not fully understand what causes pancreatic cancer, here are some factors that put people at higher risk. Being associated with a risk factor does not necessarily mean that you will develop pancreatic cancer

A family history of pancreatic cancer or chronic pancreatitis

Smoking or regular usage of chewing tobacco

Pre-existing conditions such as: 

  •  Diabetes 
  •  Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

Hereditary conditions, such as:  

  • Lynch syndrome
  • Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
  • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome

What Can be Done to
Lower Your Risk of Getting Pancreatic Cancer?

Evidence suggests that taking appropriate steps to avoid risk factors like smoking may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer. Being treated for diabetes and chronic pancreatitis in a timely manner and remaining vigilant about any signs or symptoms may also reduce the probability of getting pancreatic cancer.

What are the Symptoms?

Early detection and diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is difficult as there are no characteristic symptoms during the early stages of the disease. However, there are signs associated with pancreatic cancer that can emerge as the disease progresses and starts to affect other organs. It is therefore important to remain vigilant of the known signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, which include

Jaundice (yellowish skin or eyes)

Pale bowel movements

Itchy skin

Dark-coloured urine

Severe pain in the upper abdomen, stomach or back

Loss of appetite

Nausea and vomiting

Unexplained weight loss

Extreme fatigue

New onset of diabetes (10-20% of people with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes)

Change in bowel behaviour or habits, such as diarrhoea or severe constipation

Screening for pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer may occur in both men and women. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to screen for and diagnose for the following reasons: 

  • There aren’t any noticeable signs or symptoms in the early stages of the disease
  • When the signs and symptoms mentioned above do occur, they can easily be mistaken for many other illnesses
  • The pancreas is hidden behind other internal organs such as the stomach, intestines, liver and spleen 

Unfortunately, no standard or routine screening tests are performed for pancreatic cancer. However, if you experience any of the symptoms listed above or any other inexplicable change, make an appointment with your doctor for prompt evaluation. If you or your loved one have a family history of pancreatic cancer, have an open discussion with your doctor about undergoing genetic testing or routine check-ups.

Diagnostic tests for pancreatic cancer

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above or your doctor detects any abnormalities, he or she may recommend follow-up diagnostic tests to confirm if cancer is present. Refer to this section for more information about diagnostic tests for pancreatic cancer. Read more

Staging pancreatic cancer

If your doctor confirms that you have pancreatic cancer, further tests may be done to study the cancer cells and determine

If the disease has spread beyond the pancreas (i.e. determine the stage of cancer)

How quickly the cancer will grow

How likely it is to spread through the body

What sort of treatments might work

The likelihood of the cancer to recur (come back)

The stage of your cancer is a key aspect in determining your treatment. Refer to this section to understand your cancer diagnosis and for more information about how pancreatic cancer is staged. Read more

Treatments for
pancreatic cancer
The decision about the best course of treatment is based on these test results and the type, stage, grade and size of your tumour. Treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are some of the options used for pancreatic cancer. Refer to this section to understand the types of cancer treatments for pancreatic cancer and possible side effects. Read more
Your cancer journey
Everyone deals with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and treatment in a different way. Refer to this section, to understand various aspects of your cancer journey and the road to recovery. Read more
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