If pancreatic cancer runs in your family or you or a loved one have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you likely have a lot of questions and concerns, such as why you developed this type of deadly cancer that kills tens of thousands of people each year, survival rates, and treatment options.
Learning some basics is a good place to start. We hope this article will help you better understand the disease, its symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.
PANCREATIC CANCER AWARENESS: WHAT THE PANCREAS IS AND STATISTICS ON PANCREAS CANCER
Before we deep dive into everything you need to know about pancreatic cancer, let’s briefly discuss the location of the pancreas, a few pancreatic cancer statistics and why awareness is crucial.
If you are wondering where the pancreas is located, it is situated in the back of the abdomen and is the size of an adult hand– about 6 inches.
The pancreas might be small, but it has two crucial roles. It produces enzymes that help with digestion and sends out hormones that control the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.
A Challenging Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is known as the world’s most challenging cancer because it is pretty aggressive and often shows very vague symptoms in its early stages.
According to the most recent CDC data, pancreatic cancer will kill roughly 50,000 Americans this year alone. It is now the third deadliest cancer in the U.S, just behind lung and colorectal cancer, and is on track to become the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths before 2030.
There are treatment options to stop or slow the spread of pancreatic cancer. However, because pancreatic cancer symptoms can be very indistinct, it is hard to catch in the early stage, when it’s most treatable.
Therefore, raising pancreatic cancer awareness is very important.
HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE PANCREATIC CANCER?
Those aged 65-74 have the highest diagnosis rate of pancreatic cancer, and it is slightly more common in men than in women.
While many types of cancer have been steadily declining in recent years, cases of pancreatic cancer are on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2022, it’s estimated that about 62,210 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
While oncologists and researchers don’t fully understand why there’s a climb in pancreatic cancer rates, they have some speculations, which we will discuss a little further down.
WHAT IS PANCREATIC CANCER?
The first step in understanding pancreatic cancer is knowing where the pancreas is in your body.
The pancreas is an organ that is located in your lower abdomen and lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. Nearby organs include the liver, intestines, and spleen.
Like these other organs, the pancreas deals with digestion. Specifically, the pancreas is responsible for producing digestive enzymes. It is also responsible for the hormones that control blood sugar levels.
Like any cancer, pancreatic cancer starts when cells in the body grow out of control. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, which begins when exocrine cells that secrete digestive enzymes in the pancreas begin to grow uncontrollably.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PANCREATIC CANCER?
Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to catch in the early stage because it doesn’t have as many warning signs as other cancers.
In fact, in many cases, cancer of the pancreas doesn’t present any signs or symptoms early on that would raise a red flag.
However, as pancreatic cancer grows, you may notice one or more of these common pancreas cancer symptoms:
- Dark urine
- Pale stools
- Yellow skin and eyes from jaundice
- Pain in the upper part of your belly
- Constant pain in the middle back
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatigue or loss of appetite
As you can see, many pancreas cancer symptoms are ambiguous. They may precede the diagnosis by years and go unrecognized.
If you or someone you love is experiencing any of these symptoms, there is a high chance they are not because of pancreatic cancer. However, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you are confronted with any of these symptoms, especially more than one, or if cancer runs in your family, we urge you to speak with your doctor immediately so pancreatic cancer can be ruled out or a diagnosis can be made so treatment can begin as early as possible.
WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS FOR PANCREATIC CANCER?
Another important part of pancreatic cancer awareness is knowing the risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer.
As stated earlier, while many cancers are declining, pancreatic cancer is rising. The good news is that experts believe the reasons for increased diagnosis are within your control and only require a few lifestyle changes.
They suspect the rise in pancreatic cancer in recent years is likely because of the following:
- An increase in obesity rates
- Higher sugar levels in today’s modern diet
- A surge in pancreatic disease (pancreatitis)
Additionally, clinical studies have found the following risk factors for pancreatic cancer:
- Tobacco use
- Family history of pancreatitis
- Chronic pancreatitis
CAN I REDUCE MY RISK OF PANCREAS CANCER?
While age, gender, race and genetics are risk factors beyond your control, many of the reasons doctors and researchers believe pancreatic cancer threatens so many adults and is on the rise are manageable.
Eating a healthy diet, limiting processed foods and sugar, keeping a healthy weight, avoiding excessive use of alcohol, not smoking, and exercising frequently improve your overall health and reduce your risk of other health problems.
Not only will these healthy habits help you prevent pancreas cancer, but they will also reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other forms of cancer.
HOW SOON DO I HAVE TO MAKE A CHANGE?
It’s important to make these lifestyle changes now. The sooner you kick bad habits and establish healthy ones, the less likely you will be at high risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
Living a healthy lifestyle can also decrease the progression of pancreatic cancer and increase the chances of successful pancreatic cancer treatment.
Many serious health problems can develop because of bad habits, not only pancreatic cancer. Investing time into establishing good habits now will help you stay healthier for longer.
Do not delay beginning a regular exercise routine, establishing healthy eating habits, and kicking the habits of excessive use of alcohol and smoking.
Consult with your doctor if you have any questions about beginning an exercise regime, a proper diet to follow and other measures to help prevent pancreatic cancer or disease.
HOW IS PANCREATIC CANCER TREATED?
THE FIRST STEP: DETECTION
In most cases, detecting the disease in its early stages is impossible. This means that pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage when the disease has already spread to other parts of the body.
There are, however, some signs and symptoms that may be associated with progressing pancreatic cancer. These can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Changes in the stool
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is vital to see a doctor immediately who will try to find out what’s causing the problems by performing a series of exams and tests.
Here is a list of some methods your doctor might use to determine if your symptoms are due to pancreatic cancer.
Physical Exam: Your doctor will first start by asking about your medical history and any physical complaints or symptoms you might be experiencing, specifically any recent weight loss, pain and changes in appetite, bowel patterns or skin color.
The doctor will then complete a thorough physical exam, including palpation/observation of the chest and abdomen, checking your weight, temperature and blood pressure, etc.
Lab Tests: Blood specimens, urine and/or stool samples may be collected. One thing doctors are looking for in these labs is the level of “bilirubin” and “liver enzymes” in the blood, which measures liver and pancreas function. They might also send off your blood to check for a protein in your blood called CA19-9. High levels of CA 19-9 can be a sign of pancreatic cancer,
Diagnostic Tests: Your doctor might want to perform additional tests to make a definite diagnosis. An ultrasound will likely be performed to create images of the organs inside the body to help identify abnormal structures or tissue in the liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas and kidneys. They might also want to perform a CT Scan as another method of examining internal organs. CT Scans are x-ray images of the inside of the body that can help detect tumors and determine whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
Biopsy: If all of your other test results suggest cancer, you may not need a biopsy before you have treatment. However, some doctors will want to perform a biopsy to collect a small amount of tissue so that it can be examined to identify the types of cells collected.
Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to treat, but early diagnosis may improve the chances of successful treatment. It is important that you have the tests and exams your doctor suggests as soon as possible.
THE SECOND STEP: A PLAN OF ATTACK
Once your exams and tests are complete, if you receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, the caring, professional, and educated staff at The Surgical Clinic will explain all of your treatment options.
Pancreatic cancer is typically treated based on its stage or how far it has spread in the body. Your overall health can also affect which treatment options are best.
However, because we understand that every patient’s case is different, we will work together to build your treatment plan around you.
Common cancer treatments include surgery, chemotherapy drug therapy, and/or radiation therapy. Because these treatments can be hard on your body, we also involve nutritionists to help you stay strong and healthy.
THE THIRD STEP: TREAT PANCREATIC CANCER
Treatment plans are based on many factors, including the type and stage of pancreatic cancer, overall health, and personal treatment preferences.
Minimally invasive or laparoscopic surgical techniques can sometimes be used in pancreatic surgery, depending on the tumor’s location.
However, pancreatic cancer treatment usually involves:
Surgery: Surgery is the most common treatment for pancreatic cancer. There are two types of surgery typically used for pancreatic cancer:
- Palliative Surgery: This type of pancreatic surgery may be done if tests show that the cancer is too widespread for the pancreas to be removed completely. It usually consists of stent placement or a bypass procedure that can help improve quality of life by alleviating or minimizing symptoms such as jaundice, pain, nausea, and digestive difficulties.
- Potentially Curative Surgery: This surgery typically involves removing all of the cancer. There are three types of potentially curative surgeries:
- Whipple Procedure: Removal of tumors found on the head of the pancreas.
- Distal Pancreatectomy: Removal of the body and tail of the pancreas.
- Total Pancreatectomy: Removal of the entire pancreas, gallbladder, and part of the stomach, small intestine, and spleen.
Once the surgeon begins operating, they may find they cannot remove all of the cancer. In these cases, the surgeon might opt to perform a palliative surgery.
Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells. It is typically performed five days a week for several weeks. Each treatment session takes approximately 15–20 minutes.
Chemotherapy: Often, patients receiving radiation therapy are given oral chemotherapy on the days of radiation therapy to improve the efficacy of radiation. Other times, patients will only receive chemotherapy drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used at any stage of pancreatic cancer to kill cancer cells. Like radiation, chemotherapy drugs are usually administered in cycles.
There is no one-size-fits-all pancreatic cancer treatment plan. The best pancreatic cancer treatment plan for you may differ from the best treatment for someone else.
If you are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you and your doctor will work together to develop a pancreatic cancer treatment plan that meets your unique needs.
If you want to learn more about our oncologists and their treatment philosophy, visit our surgical oncology page.
HOW TO HELP A LOVED ONE THROUGH A DIAGNOSIS
Caring for a loved one with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis can be difficult, especially if you are the primary caregiver.
Don’t feel offended if your loved one seems sheltered. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, often, they find it difficult to express how they feel to their loved ones. They might find it easier to talk to others battling the disease or possibly not want to talk about it at all.
That said, family members and friends play an important role in both the physical and emotional effects that a person with pancreatic cancer faces.
Here are a few ways you can provide support to a loved one dealing with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and while they undergo treatment:
- Be empathetic, and provide support and encouragement. Sometimes this involves less talking and more listening.
- Stay connected and try to view them and speak to them as you did before their cancer diagnosis.
- Plan activities you can do together to have fun and forget about cancer.
- Pick up prescriptions, give medications, and drive them to/from appointments.
- Lend a hand with daily responsibilities (household chores, childcare, meals, shopping, personal care, etc.)
- Aim to interact and have the same conversations as before the diagnosis.
- Coordinate and accompany your loved one to their medical appointments.
- Step in and handle insurance and billing issues.
- Research support groups they can join.
- Create a “healing” or meditation room in their home where they can go to be alone, decompress and deal with the roller coaster of emotions they are experiencing.
If you are the primary caregiver of a loved one with the disease, you may experience many of the same emotions the patient does. Ensure you also care for yourself to avoid emotional distress and physical burnout.
BOOK YOUR APPOINTMENT TODAY
Surgical Oncology is a specialty area of practice at The Surgical Clinic, a multi-specialty surgical practice with offices conveniently located throughout Middle Tennessee.