Pancreatic cancer

Overview Pancreatic cancer originates in the tissues of your pancreas, which is an organ that is located lower behind your abdomen. Your pancreas releases enzymes that help in digestion and produces hormones which assists to manage your blood sugar. There can be cancerous and noncancerous tumor developments in the pancreas. Cancer that begins in the […]


Pancreatic cancer originates in the tissues of your pancreas, which is an organ that is located lower behind your abdomen. Your pancreas releases enzymes that help in digestion and produces hormones which assists to manage your blood sugar.

There can be cancerous and noncancerous tumor developments in the pancreas. Cancer that begins in the cells that line the ducts that carry digestive enzymes out of the pancreas (pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma) is the most common type of pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is rarely diagnosed at its early stages when it’s most curable. This is because it usually doesn’t show any symptoms until it spreads to other organs.

Pancreatic cancer treatment options are determined based on the gravity of cancer. The treatment options may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these.


Pancreatic cancer symptoms do not usually appear until the disease is advanced. They may include:

  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that’s becoming harder to control
  • Blood clots
  • Exhaustion

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you encounter any unexplained symptoms that bother you. There can also be other conditions responsible for these symptoms, hence the doctor will watch out of those conditions as well as for pancreatic cancer.


Although, the doctors have discovered some factors that may increase the risk of this type of cancer, including smoking and having certain inherited genetic mutations, the exact cause of pancreatic cancer remains unclear.

Understanding your pancreas

Your pancreas is about 6 inches (15 centimeters) long and looks like a pear lying on its side. It secretes hormones including insulin, to help your body process sugar in the foods you eat. It also produces digestive juices to help your body to digest food and absorb nutrients.

Painful pancreas problems

The most common disorders in the pancreas include;

  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Hereditary pancreatitis

How pancreatic cancer forms

Pancreatic cancer occurs when mutations are developed in the DNA of the cells in your pancreas. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. These mutations would tell the cells to grow uncontrollably and to continue living even after normal cells die. These collections of cells can create a tumor. The pancreatic cancer cells can spread to nearby organs and blood vessels and distant parts of the body if left untreated.

Most pancreatic cancers originate in the cells that line the ducts of the pancreas. This type of cancer is known as pancreatic adenocarcinoma or pancreatic exocrine cancer. Cancer can rarely develop in the hormone-producing cells or the neuroendocrine cells of the pancreas. These types of cancers are known as pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, islet cell tumors, or pancreatic endocrine cancer.

Risk factors

Following factors may increase your risk of pancreatic cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Family history of genetic syndromes that can increase cancer risk, including a BRCA2 gene mutation, Lynch syndrome and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
  • Older age, as most people are diagnosed after age 65

A large study shows that the combination of smoking, long-standing diabetes, and a poor diet increases the chance of pancreatic cancer beyond the risk of any one of these factors alone.


Pancreatic cancer may cause complications as it improves. Such as:

  • Weight loss. Several factors may result in weight loss in people with pancreatic cancer. This happens as cancer consumes the body’s energy. Nausea and vomiting caused due to cancer treatments or a tumor pressing on your stomach may make it hard to eat. It may also happen due to problems in processing nutrients from food as your pancreas isn’t secreting enough digestive juices.
  • Pancreatic cancer that blocks the liver’s bile duct can cause jaundice. Signs include; yellow skin and eyes, dark-colored urine, and pale-colored stools. Jaundice does not cause abdominal pain.

Your doctor may recommend placing a plastic/metal tube (stent) inside the bile duct to hold it open. A procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is used for this. During this process, an endoscope is passed down your throat, through your stomach and into the upper part of your small intestine. A dye is then injected into the pancreatic and bile ducts through a small hollow tube (catheter) that’s passed through the endoscope. Images of the ducts are then been taken.

  • A growing tumor may press on nerves in your abdomen resulting in a pain that can become serious. Pain medications can help you feel more comfortable. Treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy might assist to decelerate the tumor growth and provide some pain relief.

In serious cases, your doctor might recommend you inject alcohol into the nerves that help to control pain in your abdomen (celiac plexus block). This will stop the nerves from sending pain signals to your brain.

  • Bowel obstruction. Pancreatic cancer that grows into or presses on the duodenum (first part of the small intestine), can interrupt the flow of the digested food from your stomach into your intestines.

Your doctor may recommend placing a stent on the small intestine to hold it open. In some instances, it might be helpful to do a surgery to place a temporary feeding tube or to attach your stomach to a lower point in your intestines that would not be blocked by cancer.


Your risk of pancreatic cancer may decrease if you:

  • Stop smoking. If you are a smoking person you should try to stop it. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit smoking including support groups, medications, and nicotine replacement therapy. If you are not a smoking person, don’t start.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are in a healthy weight, work on maintaining it. But if you need to lose weight, aim for a slow, stable weight loss — 1 to 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a week. Combine daily exercise with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains with smaller portions to help you lose weight.
  • Choose a healthy diet. A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains may help lower your risk of cancer.

If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, consider meeting a genetic counselor. He or she can review your family health history and determine whether you should proceed with a genetic test to understand your odds of pancreatic cancer or other cancers.

Pancreatitis/ Inflamed pancreas

Pancreatitis refers to an inflammation in the pancreas. This can occur as acute pancreatitis or chronic pancreatitis. Mild cases of pancreatitis may go away without treatment, but severe cases can cause life-threatening complications.

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas that may be mild or life-threatening but usually subsides.

The main causes of this disease include;

  • Gall stones
  • Alcohol use

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that does not heal or improve instead, gets worse over time, and leads to permanent damage. Chronic pancreatitis eventually impairs a patient’s ability to digest food and to make pancreatic hormones.

Long term alcohol use is the most common cause of this disease.

Signs of pancreatitis & pancreatitis symptoms

Acute pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
  • Abdominal pain that feels worse after eating
  • Fever
  • Rapid pulse
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tenderness when touching the abdomen

Chronic pancreatitis signs and symptoms include:

  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Unintentional loss of weight
  • Oily, smelly stools (steatorrhea)

Pancreatitis causes

Although it becomes impossible to find the cause of pancreatitis in certain people, the following causes are believed to lead to this disease;

  • Abdominal surgery
  • Alcohol
  • Certain medications
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Gallstones
  • High calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcemia)
  • High triglyceride levels in the blood (hypertriglyceridemia)
  • Infection
  • Injury to the abdomen
  • Obesity
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography

Pancreatitis in dogs

Inflammation of the pancreas can be found in dogs as well which leads them to pancreatitis. They may show the following symptoms;
  • Loses appetite
  • Vomit
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever or low body temperature
  •  Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Shortness of breath
  •  Dehydration
  •  Irregular heartbeat
Even though the causes of this condition are not very clear, certain breeds, especially schnauzers, are more prone to it. Older dogs and ones who are overweight are also more likely to get it. Side effects of a drug or having surgery may also lead to this condition. Dogs usually recover from mild cases, but if it’s severe, it can lead to death.

Pancreatic enzymes

These enzymes are used to treat malabsorption syndrome due to certain pancreatic problems. These pancreatic problems may occur due to cystic fibrosis, surgical removal of the pancreas, long term pancreatitis, or pancreatic cancer.

There are three types of pancreatic enzymes namely;

  • Pancreatic proteases (such as trypsin and chymotrypsin) – Helps to digest proteins.
  • Pancreatic amylase – Helps to digest sugars (carbohydrates).
  • Pancreatic slipcase – Helps to digest fat.

Jack Andraka

Jack Thomas Andraka (born January 8, 1997) is an American university student, inventor, and cancer researcher. He has won the grand prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a method to possibly diagnose the early stages of pancreatic and other cancers.

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