An Overview of Pancreatic Cancer
What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer starts in the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is a result of abnormal cell growth that disrupts the endocrine system. The endocrine system is composed of glands that secrete hormones (chemicals that regulate other body parts) directly into the bloodstream. Rather than developing into healthy, normal pancreas tissue, these abnormal cells multiply and form lumps, called tumors. Tumor cells fight their way into other organs and interfere with operations of the pancreas.
According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, more than 95% of pancreatic cancers are:
- Adenocarcinoma, tumors of the lining of the pancreatic duct– or exocrine tumors – or which start in the cells that make pancreatic enzymes that help in digestion.
5% of pancreatic tumors are
- Neuroendocrine tumors, also called endocrine or islet cell tumors
Other types of pancreatic cancer are:
What are the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
Signs or symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:
- Jaundice or yellowing of the skin, caused by an increase in the level of bilirubin. About half of all people with pancreatic cancer, and those with ampullary cancer, may get jaundice.
- Abdominal or back pain may occur in advanced pancreatic cancer. Cancers that start in the body, or tail, of the pancreas squeeze and compress other nearby organs, causing pain. The cancer may also spread to the nerves surrounding the pancreas, leading to back pain.
- Unintended or unexpected weight loss
- Poor appetite
- Digestive problems
- Enlarged abdomen from swollen gallbladder
- Pale, greasy stools
- Diabetes (exocrine cancers of the pancreas may be linked to diabetes or high blood sugar, because they destroy the insulin-making cells.)
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer may be similar to those of other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
Are there risk factors for pancreatic cancer?
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer can include:
- Family history
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Some genetic syndromes
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?
History and physical exam
Patients will be given a health history and physical exam to help diagnose pancreatic cancer. The exam will focus mostly on the abdominal area of the liver, which may be enlarged. The skin and the white part of the eyes will be checked for jaundice. Your symptoms, medical history, and family history of cancer may be reviewed.
Diagnostic imaging tests
- CT scan (computed tomography) – These x-rays can be useful in finding pancreatic tumors. CT scans can also show the organs near the pancreas and whether cancer has spread. A CT scan may determine if surgery is a good treatment option.
- ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) – A thin, flexible tube is passed down the throat, into the small intestine, where the doctor can see through the end of the tube. A small amount of contrast dye is then pushed through the tube into the ducts. The dye colors outlines of the ducts on x-rays to reveal blocked ducts that could signal cancer of the pancreas.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) – MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets to image the tumor and may be helpful in looking at the pancreas and surrounding organs.
- PET scan (positron emission tomography) – PET scans use a radioactive glucose to image cells. Cancer cells are very active and they take in large amounts of the sugar. This whole body scan is useful to see if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or to other places.
- PET/CT scan – This test combines the 2 types of scans to even better pinpoint the tumor spread beyond the pancreas. It may also be useful for staging the cancer and finding it sooner.
- Somatostatin receptor scintigraphy (SRS) – also known as OctreoScan, SRS can be helpful in diagnosing pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors.
- Ultrasound – This test can help tell what kind of tumor is in the pancreas. An endoscopic ultrasound gives a picture, which may be more helpful than a CT scans for spotting small tumors.
- Blood tests - While there is currently no specific test that finds pancreatic cancer, blood tests can show whether jaundice is due to a blockage in the bile duct or to another cause, such as liver disease. If you have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, your doctor may give you a special blood test, called CA 19-9 to track the activity of pancreatic cancer cells.
- Biopsy – surgical removal of tissue from the pancreas to determine whether pancreatic cancer is present.
All imaging tests are not always required.
Learn more about how pancreatic cancer is found from the American Cancer Society.
How is pancreatic cancer treated?
After a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and staging, pancreatic cancer treatment can include:
- Ablative techniques to destroy pancreatic tumors without surgery
- Radiation therapy
- Chemotherapy and other drugs
Learn more about treating pancreatic cancer from the American Cancer Society.
Learn more about pancreatic cancer
Visit these websites for more information about pancreatic cancer:
American Cancer Society
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
Contact the Pancreatic Cancer Program at Methodist Dallas
For more information about pancreatic cancer treatment options and pancreatic cancer resources at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, call at 214-999-6601.
Information contained on these pages has been gathered from independent sources and is for informational use only. It is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice and information provided by your health care provider. Any decision you make regarding your health care options should be made after consulting a qualified physician.
American Cancer Society
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
Staywell Health Library
Texas law prohibits hospitals from practicing medicine. The physicians on the Methodist Health System medical staff are independent practitioners who are not employees or agents of Methodist Health System.