Early diagnosis is critical in treating pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly types of cancer. Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells begin to form and multiply in the pancreas. The pancreas is located behind the lower portion of the stomach and is responsible for secreting digestive enzymes and releasing hormones that regulate sugar metabolism.
Unfortunately, most symptoms of pancreatic cancer don’t occur until the cancer is advanced. When they occur, the symptoms include:
Though it is unclear exactly what causes pancreatic cancer to occur, there are several factors that could put an individual at risk for developing it. Pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who smoke, are African American, have longstanding diabetes, have chronic pancreatitis or have a family history of pancreatic cancer.
A doctor will first perform a thorough exam before recommending tests to determine if the patient has pancreatic cancer. Imaging tests, such as a computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be done to visualize the pancreas. An endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) utilizes a device that goes down the patient’s esophagus and into the stomach to take pictures of the pancreas. A biopsy may also be performed by removing a small part of the pancreas and having it examined under a microscope to look for malignant cells. Additionally, a blood test may be done to look for certain tumor markers that are shed from malignant pancreatic cells.
Doctors will first stage the cancer, using the diagnostic tests, in order to determine the best course of treatment. If the cancer is in an early stage, doctors will try to eliminate the cancer from the body. When the cancer is found in a later stage, however, the cancer may try to be controlled in order to prolong the life of the patient or pain-relief may be given to make the patient as comfortable as possible.
If the cancer is caught early, surgery may be possible to remove the tumors in the pancreas. Additionally, radiation and chemotherapy may be administered to the patient with the goal of eliminating the cancer or preventing its growth.
New studies on medications have helped patients live longer after being diagnosed. Though only 23 percent of patients survive one year after diagnosis, doctors and scientists are hopeful that new advances in treatments may change this prognosis.