Health

Pancreatic cancer: Understanding the symptoms and causes in 2024

Pancreatic cancer affects your pancreas, a gland in your abdomen that helps with digestion. The top treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation program. Pancreatic survival rates are unfortunately very low because it is always hard to detect it in the early stages. Some symptoms to look out for include nausea, bloating, fatigue, jaundice, and loss of appetite. 

However, there’s more to look out for. In this article, you’ll learn more about the possible symptoms, what pancreatic cancer means, types, diagnosis, causes, management and treatment, prevention, and other aspects. 

What is pancreatic cancer?

The pancreas is a small fish-shaped organ that sits behind the stomach and provides enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer usually starts in the duct of the pancreas, and the cells mutate (change) and multiply out of control, forming a tumor. The main pancreatic ducts connect your pancreas to the common bile duct. 

One saddening thing is the fact that during an imaging test, the early-stage pancreatic tumors don’t show up. For this reason, many people don’t receive a diagnosis until cancer has spread. It’s also resistant to many cancer drugs, making it extremely difficult to treat. 

There’s still ongoing research regarding early detection through genetic testing and new imaging methods, however much still needs to be learned. 

Types of pancreatic cancer 

1 . Endocrine tumors: Endocrine tumors are those that begin in the cells in your pancreas that make hormones, such as insulin. This type of cancer is not very common, less than 10 percent of pancreatic tumors are neuroendocrine tumors.

2 .  Adenocarcinoma (endocrine tumors):  Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of pancreatic cancer, accounting for approximately 90% of all cases. It develops from the cells that line the ducts of the pancreas and is typically located in the exocrine portion of the pancreas. Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas is often aggressive and tends to spread rapidly.

14 things that could mean you have  pancreatic cancer 

Sadly, many people don’t have pancreatic cancer until they become very ill. The symptoms typically arise once the tumor has started impacting other organs in the digestive system. Some symptoms include: 

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Light-colored stool (poop)
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin (all parts of the body)
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine (pee)
  • Gas or bloating 
  • New-onset diabetes 
  • Middle back pain
  • Blood clots 
  • Changes in bowel movements(diarrhea, constipation)

In all honesty, these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, and having one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have pancreatic cancer. However, if you experience persistent or worsening symptoms, especially if you have risk factors for pancreatic cancer such as a family history of the disease or smoking, it’s essential to discuss them with your healthcare provider for further evaluation and testing

How long does it take before a person notices pancreatic cancer?

Unfortunately, there are no tell-tale signs of it. Catching pancreatic cancer early is challenging because patients rarely experience the signs until the disease has progressed or spread. This is why it is typically diagnosed at later stages, making long-term prognosis and survival rates much lower than other cancers. Some people develop vague symptoms up to one year before they receive a diagnosis. 

Most people reported that their first symptoms were back pain or stomach ache. These symptoms can come and go at first, but may get worse after meals or when you lie down. 

What causes pancreatic cancer?

There is no clear answer as to what can cause the disease. However, experts have been able to identify some risk factors. Here are some factors that can increase your chances of getting the disease:

1 . Smoking cigarettes, cigars, and using other forms of tobacco.

2 . Gaining too much weight, particularly if you carry the extra weight around your waist.

3 . Exposure to certain chemicals like pesticides and petrochemicals.

4 . Diabetes, especially Type 2 diabetes. A sudden-onset diabetes could indicate pancreatic cancer.

5 . Chronic pancreatitis, is a permanent disorder of inflammation of the pancreas.

6 . Hereditary chronic pancreatitis due to gene changes passed from biological parent to child. 

7 . Inherited genetic mutations, such as mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, passed from biological parent to child. 

8 . Heavy alcohol consumption over a long period.

9 . A person’s age may also play a role in the risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The majority of cases are diagnosed in people over the age of 65. However, do remember that it can occur at any age.

Even with these believed risk factors, It’s important to note that having one or more does not necessarily mean that a person will develop the disease. This is because there are many people with pancreatic cancer who do not/didn’t have any known risk factors.

In the case of a man whose father didn’t fall under many of these risk factors. He took his story to social media and shared how his father still passed away, regardless of being a very healthy person.

These were his words.

“ My father was a very healthy person, he was 64 years old and  looked so young regardless of his age. He didn’t drink, or smoke, and neither did he eat unhealthy foods. He always went to the gym and walked everywhere. On a ….. (particular month) he started feeling a lot of pain in his back and the doctor did a blood test and also got him scanned, and he was diagnosed with the worst type of pancreatic cancer anyone could get. He lost so much weight within a few days of being diagnosed, when he was in the hospital. He finally passed away 4 weeks later” 

He then went ahead to mention how awful this disease was and demanded more tests to be done. 

Conversely, some people with known risk factors may never develop the disease. The world works in mysterious ways, however, it’ll always be of paramount importance to avoid unhealthy habits and practice good ones.

What are the complications?

Pancreatic cancer tends to spread to nearby blood vessels, lymph nodes, and then to the liver, peritoneum, and lungs. In most cases, the disease always spreads beyond the pancreas at the time of diagnosis. 

Diagnosis and Tests 

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

Imaging studies 

Your doctor may need to take one or more of the following imaging tests 

  • Endoscopic ultrasonography 
  • CT scanning 
  • Transcutaneous ultrasonography 
  • PET (positron emission tomography)
  • MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) 

Blood tests 

A pancreas blood test can detect tumor markers. A tumor marker is a substance that may mean there is a presence of cancer. In the events of pancreatic cancer, high levels of carbohydrate antigen (CA) 19.9 — a type of protein is released, and this might indicate a tumor.

Genetic testing 

This form of test may be recommended for those with a family history of pancreatic cancer or certain genetic syndromes associated with an increased risk of the disease, such as hereditary pancreatitis. It can also help your doctor determine which type of treatment will be most effective for you.

Some people with cancer in their pancreas have mutations in genes BRCA 1 and BRCA2. Though these genes are associated with breast cancer genes, they may also indicate other forms of cancer, including prorate, ovarian, and pancreatic. 

If you’re a parent, child, or sibling of someone who has this condition, it’s advisable to go for genetic testing. Your results will allow you to know if you have a BRCA 1 or BRAC2  gene mutation. However, you should know that even if you have the mutation, it doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. But knowing your risk is the main goal.

Staging laparoscopy 

This method helps to determine the extent of cancer and whether or not removal is possible. During the procedure, a surgeon will make a few small cuts in your abdomen and insert a long tube with a camera on the end. This will help them see inside your abdomen and look for anything weird. Often they’ll take a biopsy during the same procedure. 

How far is too far (pancreatic tumor ranking)

Healthcare providers rank pancreatic tumors into four different groups:

Resectable: In this case the tumor is only in your pancreas and hasn’t affected nearby blood vessels or other organs. Which makes it easier to remove it with surgery.

Borderline resectable: This stage means that the tumor has affected the nearby vessels, but a surgeon can still remove it.

Locally advanced: The tumor is in the pancreas and has increased its capacity in the nearby blood vessels. When this happens, it makes surgery difficult to do and may even risk the life of the patient.

Metastatic: Now the tumor has spread to different parts of the body such as the liver, lungs, or abdominal cavity. And there’s a possibility that it has spread to the organs, tissues, or lymph nodes near the pancreas. It’s a very deadly stage and treatment may not help in this case. 

Management and Treatment 

Can pancreatic cancer be cured? (the truth)

The survival rate of this disease is sadly poor, however, all hope isn’t lost. Because complete remission is possible with early detection and treatment. It’s just unfortunate that there aren’t early symptoms of the disease. And the only way to realistically cure it is with total surgical removal of the cancer. 

How is the disease treated?

There are set treatments that depend on certain factors, including:

  • The precise location of the tumor 
  • What stage it is 
  • The person’s overall health 
  • Whether the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas 

Treatments include:

Surgery 

Surgery is often the primary treatment for pancreatic cancer, particularly for tumors that are confined and have not spread to other organs. But surgeons only recommend it when they believe they can remove all of it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. 

For the surgery to be successful, the cancer must be within the pancreas. And even then, total cancer removal may not be possible. 

There are a few different surgical techniques, depending on the location and size of the tumor:

Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy)

This involves the removal of the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, gallbladder, and bile duct if the tumor is there Afterwards the surgeon will then attach your remaining bile duct and pancreas to your small intestine to reestablish your digestive tract.

Distal pancreatectomy: Removal of the tail or body of the pancreas. During this procedure, a surgeon removes the tail of your pancreas and some of the pancreas body. In most cases, they’ll remove your spleen. 

Total pancreatectomy: This one involves removing the entire pancreas. If cancer has spread throughout your entire pancreas, but resection is still possible, your doctor may consider a total pancreatectomy. It involves three removals of your entire pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, and part of your stomach and small intestine.

The good news is that it’s possible to live without your spleen, but there’s one problem, it can cause major side effects. Your pancreas makes insulin and other hormones that keep your blood sugar safe. And without your pancreas, you’ll develop diabetes and will always need insulin shots to survive. 

Additionally, you’ll need to take pancreatic enzyme pills to help with digestion. So it’s not going to be all rosy, but you’ll be okay.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. These drugs can come in pill form or through an IV in your arm.

The doctor can use chemotherapy as a stand-alone treatment — especially for people with advanced pancreatic cancer. They may also recommend chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells or shrink tumors. Healthcare providers commonly use this approach to treat pancreatic cancer. It may be used alone or in combination with chemotherapy as a primary treatment or as adjuvant therapy after surgery. Radiation therapy can also help ease pancreatic cancer symptoms in people who don’t qualify for surgery (in cases of advanced cancer).

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy drugs target specific abnormalities or mutations present in cancer cells, blocking their growth and survival. Providers may combine targeted therapy with other treatments like radiation therapy. 

Some common targeted therapy drugs include: 

  • Entrectinib 
  • Erlotinib 
  • Larotrectinib 
  • Olaparib 
  • Pain management 

Pancreatic cancer could be very painful because of its possible involvement with nearby nerves. The doctor may give you some oral medications to manage the pain, anesthesia, or steroid injections. That’s why you should immediately visit your healthcare provider if you feel pain when you have pancreatic cancer. They’d be able to find a treatment that will ease your symptoms.

What can you do to prevent pancreatic cancer?

Unlike some other medical conditions, you can’t prevent pancreatic cancer, but what you can do is lower your changes:

1 . Don’t smoke 

2 . Reduce how much alcohol you drink 

3 . Limit your exposure to harmful chemicals such as asbestos, pesticides, and petrochemicals.

4 . Reduce your intake of red meat, processed foods, and sugary drinks.

5 . Maintain a weight that is healthy for you.

6 . Eat high amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 

7 . Stay active and engage in regular physical activity, such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming, for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. Regular exercise can help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including pancreatic cancer.

Ask these questions to get the best out of your meeting with your healthcare provider.

If you or someone you care about received a pancreatic diagnosis, here are the best questions to ask. You might want to grab a note real quick or take a screenshot.

  • What stage is the cancer? What does it mean for me?
  • What treatment options are available? 
  • Which treatment do you think is best and why?
  • What are the pros and cons of the treatment?
  • Is genetic testing right for me?
  • Are there any available clinical trials?
  • Will I still be able to carry on with my life?
  • Can you tell me where to find financial support?
  • What is the best way to find emotional support?
  • What can I do to stay as healthy as possible?
  • These signs may mean that pancreatic cancer has gotten bad (spread)

As this condition progresses, you may develop new symptoms. Advanced symptoms may include:

  • Extreme fatigue 
  • Jaundice 
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fluid buildup and swelling in your abdomen ( ascites) 

Frequently asked questions 

What is the progression timeline of pancreatic cancer?

Normally, it takes about 10 to 20 years for a single cancer cell in your pancreas to turn into a tumor. There’s a lot of ongoing research to determine how healthcare providers can detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages when it’s more treatable. So, everyone should hold out hope, as things will get better soon.

What’s the survival rate?

In the U.S., the five-year survival rate for people with this condition is 11 percent. This means that out of 100 people, only 11 of them are still alive after five years of their diagnosis.  However, survival rates are only estimates, you shouldn’t use that as an indicator of how long you think you’ll live or how well you’ll respond to treatment. If you have pending questions concerning survival rates and what they could mean for you, talk to your doctor.

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