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The pancreas is a gland located in the abdominal region that performs two main functions for the body: produces digestive juices and the hormone insulin which regulates the blood sugar levels. The part which produces the digestive juices is exocrine and the insulin-producing part is the endocrine portion. Pancreatic cancer, which is an uncontrolled growth of the pancreas cells, often starts in the exocrine portion and is known as the pancreatic adenocarcinoma. The one which develops in the endocrine portion is known as neuroendocrine cancer or islet cell tumors.
Though not clearly established, the following factors are believed to up the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Family history
- Prolonged uncontrolled diabetes
- Pancreatic conditions like inherited pancreatitis
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
A pancreatic condition is of insidious onset, and the exact period of onset cannot be determined. The symptoms also are nonspecific abdominal symptoms, which do not pinpoint the pancreas per se.
- Jaundice, which includes yellowing of the skin and whites of the white. This is because the growth of the pancreas puts pressure on the liver and bile ducts, and so hampers bile flow.
- Weight loss, which was unintended. This is due to a bloated feeling plus inability to digest the foods.
- Severe pain, which can be difficult and may even require regular injections to control.
- Fluctuating sugar levels, which is unexplained.
- Onset of diabetes, which is associated with weight loss and jaundice.
- Increased tendency for blood clots.
- Loss of appetite.
- Bowel obstruction due to blockage of the growing pancreas.
The above symptoms could lead to a further investigation that includes a few important tests, like the following.
- Blood tests
- Insulin levels
- CT scan
- Laparoscopy, both to look for the extent of the disease and to do a biopsy, which can be used for confirming the type of cancer
- Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography: A dye is injected into the pancreas to study the spread of the dye, which will also help identify the diseased portion.
Pancreatic cancer is very aggressive, usually not detected early, and has a very poor prognosis. So, if there is a family history or one has a prolonged pancreatic condition, it is advisable to go for annual screening to help with early detection and intervention. Once identified, treatment would include a combination of the three modalities – surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Surgery often may be followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation.
The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is very poor. Only about 25% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live past the first year. Early detection of risk factor remains the best way to improve prognosis. In case you have a concern or query you can always consult an expert & get answers to your questions!