Located between the stomach and backbone, and approximately six inches long, the pancreas is an organ that makes enzyme-containing juices that help the body break down food. The juices flow through a system of ducts to the main pancreatic duct and on to the small intestine.
Wide on one end and narrow on the other, the pancreas is surrounded by the liver, intestine and other organs.
The pancreas is also a gland that makes insulin and other hormones. These hormones enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. They help the body use or store the energy that comes from food. For example, insulin helps control the amount of sugar in the blood.
In a healthy pancreas, normal cells grow and divide to form new cells that replace those that grow old, get damaged or die. Sometimes, though, this process goes wrong and new cells form when the body doesn't need them - or old or damaged cells don't die as they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.
Growths in the pancreas can be benign or malignant. Benign growths are not cancer. They can be removed, are rarely a threat to life and don't grow back. They also don't invade the tissues around them and don't spread to other parts of the body.
Malignant growths, however, are cancer. They may be a threat to life and cannot always be removed. If they are removed they can grow back. They also can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs such as the stomach or intestine and can spread to other parts of the body.
Doctors don't know why individuals develop pancreatic cancer. Certain risk factors exist, however, that may increase a person's risk of getting the disease. These include cigarette smoking, particularly heavy smoking. Diabetes also increases the chances of pancreatic cancer as does a family history of the disease.
Having pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) for a long time may also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Obesity is a risk factor, too. Studies to identify other risk factors are ongoing.
Many people who get pancreatic cancer have none of these risk factors, and many people who have known risk factors don't develop the disease.
Early cancer of the pancreas often doesn't cause symptoms. When the cancer grows larger, you may notice one or more of these common symptoms:
- Dark urine, pale stools, and yellow skin and eyes from jaundice
- Pain in the upper part of your belly
- Pain in the middle part of your back that doesn't go away when you shift your position
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stools that float in the toilet
Also, advanced cancer may cause these general symptoms:
- Weakness or feeling very tired
- Loss of appetite or feelings of fullness
- Weight loss for no known reason
These symptoms may be caused by pancreatic cancer or by other health problems. People with these symptoms should see their doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and radiation therapy. Usually, patients receive more than one type of treatment.
Location of the tumor in the pancreas, whether the disease has spread and the patient's age and general health are factors that determine appropriate treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Currently, cancer of the pancreas can be cured only when it's found at an early stage (before it has spread) and only if surgery can completely remove the tumor. For people who can't have surgery, other treatments may be able to help them live longer and feel better.
Surgery may be an option for people with an early stage of pancreatic cancer. The surgeon usually removes only the part of the pancreas that has cancer. But, in some cases, the whole pancreas may be removed.
The type of surgery depends on the location of the tumor in the pancreas. Surgery to remove a tumor in the head of the pancreas is called a Whipple procedure. The Whipple procedure is the most common type of surgery for pancreatic cancer. You and your surgeon may talk about the types of surgery and which may be right for you.
In addition to part or all of your pancreas, the surgeon usually removes nearby tissues including the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine), gallbladder, common bile duct and part of the stomach. The spleen and some nearby lymph nodes may also be removed.
Surgery for pancreatic cancer is a major operation. You will need to stay in the hospital for one to two weeks afterward. Your health care team will watch for signs of bleeding, infection, or other problems. It takes time to heal after surgery, and the time needed to recover is different for each person.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Most people with pancreatic cancer get chemotherapy. For early pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy is usually given after surgery, but in some cases, it's given before surgery. For advanced cancer, chemotherapy is used alone, with targeted therapy, or with radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer is usually given by vein. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout your body.
People with cancer of the pancreas who can't have surgery may receive a type of drug called targeted therapy along with chemotherapy. Targeted therapy slows the growth of pancreatic cancer. It also helps prevent cancer cells from spreading. The drug is taken by mouth.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It can be given along with other treatments, including chemotherapy. The radiation comes from a large machine. The machine aims beams of radiation at the cancer in the abdomen. You'll go to a hospital or clinic 5 days a week for several weeks to receive radiation therapy. Each session takes about 30 minutes.
The information provided on these educational pages is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. And, if experiencing a medical emergency call 9-1-1.