Cancer of the pancreas refers to growth of cancer cells in the pancreas. The pancreas is in the abdomen (belly), with the stomach, intestines, and other organs around it. It makes juices used in digestion and several hormones, including insulin, which controls blood sugar (glucose) level. It releases these substances into ducts (tubes). Pancreatic cancer starts from cells lining these ducts.
Almost 30,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with this cancer each year. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Early detection is best for a cure, but this cancer is hard to find early because most symptoms do not occur until the cancer has spread.
Causes are unclear, but smoking, alcoholism, and chronic inflammation (swelling) of the pancreas (pancreatitis) are related to this disease. Pancreatic cancer isn’t contagious, and it’s not hereditary except in rare cases.
Because pancreatic cancer doesn’t cause symptoms early, it’s called silent. Symptoms depend on the cancer’s location and size. If the bile duct is blocked so that bile cannot pass into the intestines, jaundice may occur. The skin and whites of the eyes become yellow and urine may become dark.
Growing cancer causes pain in the upper abdomen and sometimes the back. Pain becomes worse after eating or lying down. Other symptoms are nausea, reduced appetite, weight loss, and weakness.
The health care provider makes a preliminary diagnosis from symptoms and special imaging tests called computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound. They help decide the stage (extent) of disease by showing whether cancer affects other organs.
The best way to diagnose cancer is with a biopsy. A piece of pancreas is taken and checked with a microscope to detect cancer cells.
Surgery may be done to remove all (total pancreatectomy) or part of the pancreas and other tissues. In the Whipple procedure, the surgeon removes the head of the pancreas, parts of the small intestine and stomach, and other tissues. Sometimes cancer cannot be completely removed, but surgery can help relieve symptoms.
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are also used. Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy (drugs to kill cancer cells) may be given alone or with radio-therapy if cancer cannot be removed. Doctors sometimes give chemotherapy after surgery to control cancer cell growth.
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