The Pancreas

Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a disease that starts in the pancreas, which is an organ situated in the abdomen, covered by the lower part of the stomach. The pancreas is responsible for producing hormones that help to control blood sugar and enzymes that are needed for digestion.

The most common form of pancreatic cancer starts in the cells which line the pancreas ducts. The pancreas ducts carry digestive enzymes.

The treatment options chosen for pancreatic cancer will depend on the extent of the disease.


What causes pancreatic cancer?

The underlying cause of pancreatic cancer is not yet known, although there are certain factors that can increase the risk of the disease. Pancreatic cancer forms when the cells develop mutations. These DNA mutations are responsible for the uncontrollable growth of cells which can result in a tumour. If left untreated, pancreatic cancer can also spread to other organs.

It is understood that you could be at a higher risk of pancreatic cancer if; you smoke, you have pancreatitis (chronic inflammation of the pancreas), genetic syndromes which can increase cancer risk run in your family, you are over the age of 65, you are obese, or you have diabetes. The single biggest risk factor is increasing age.


Understanding pancreatic cancer: What is not known, or practiced so well?

It is true that pancreatic cancer is a difficult cancer to treat and is associated with poor outcomes. What is less well understood is that improvements to patients care can be made at every step of the patient pathway and treatment which can improve the chances for a good outcome and can often improve quality of life.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

In many cases, symptoms of pancreatic cancer are not apparent until the disease has reached its advanced stages. Symptoms can include; loss of appetite, abdominal pain, back pain, dark coloured urine, itchy skin, light coloured stools, jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and eye whites), tiredness, and blood clots. Early stage pancreatic cancer is more often associated with jaundice and/or vomiting. Occasionally pancreatic cancer is diagnosed by chance when a person has a scan for another reason.

If unexplained symptoms such as these are concerning you, you should see a doctor.

Treatment options for pancreatic cancer

If your doctor thinks that you might have pancreatic cancer, you may undergo a number of diagnostic assessments, including; imaging tests such as a CT scan, MRI scan and PET scan; an endoscopic ultrasound; a biopsy (taking a tissue sample for testing); or a blood test.

The treatment option that is chosen for pancreatic cancer will depend on the location and stage of the cancer, as well as the overall health of the individual.

There are several surgical treatments that can be effective in treating pancreatic cancer. These include; the Whipple's procedure, for tumours located in the pancreatic head; a distal pancreatectomy, for tumours in the pancreatic tail and body; a total pancreatectomy, in order to remove the entire pancreas; and operations that involve the removal and reconstruction of affected blood vessels, for those with advanced pancreatic cancer.

One or more chemotherapy drugs can be taken to help destroy cancer cells. These can be combined with radiation therapy as a treatment for cancer that hasn't developed to other organs. This combination of treatments (chemoradiation) is also used ahead of surgery to help shrink tumours.

Palliative care can be offered to provide relief from pain, helping to improve the quality of life for people with pancreatic cancer, as well as their families. Delivered by care specialists, palliative care can offer support during pancreatic cancer treatment.

Other treatments