Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is found deep in the abdomen, behind the stomach. It is shaped like aflattened pear or a fish, wide at one end and narrow at the other. The 6 inch long organ does two jobs. It creates pancreatic juices that help with the digestion of fats and proteins and produces hormones such as insulin, that help control the sugar levels in our bodies. The location of the pancreas makes early detection of cancer very difficult. Right now, ACS says there are no simple screening tests to discover pancreatic cancer at an early, more easily treated stage. So often, when the cancer is found, it has already spread to other parts of the body, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Risk factors

The risk factors for pancreatic cancer mirror many of the risk factors for other cancers. NCI and ACS list the following risk factors:

  • Age - pancreatic cancer rarely is seen before the age of 40. The average age of discovery is 70.
  • Sex - men are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer as women.
  • Race - African Americans are more likely than their white or Asian American contemporaries
  • Smoking - three of ten people with pancreatic cancer are smokers. Smokers are 2 to 3 times more likely to get it.
  • Diet - people with high fat diets that are low in fruit and vegetables have a higher risk.
  • Diabetes - doubles the risk of getting pancreatic cancer.

NCI says there is also some evidence that exposure to some chemicals on the job can increase your risk.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

NCI says that many times symptoms are vague and are ignored, a reason to be vigilant and talk with your doctor. NCI and ACS list the following as symptoms of pancreatic cancer:

  • Jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and the eyes. It can also be a sign of many other diseases and should be checked by a doctor
  • Pain in the stomach area or the middle of the upper back
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • General weakness or tiredness

Other conditions that arered flags for possible pancreatic cancer includea swollen gallbladder and the onset of diabetes. (Read about "Diabetes")

If pancreatic cancer is suspected, the doctor can order visual scanning tests such as CT scans, MRI or ultrasound. (Read about "Imaging" here) Another procedure - endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) - uses a dye to highlight the bile ducts in the pancreas. A biopsy is another test that can be conducted to obtain a small sample of the pancreas to look at under a microscope.


Once cancer of the pancreas is found, more tests will be done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This is called staging. The doctor needs to know the stage of the disease to plan treatment. The following stages are used for cancer of the pancreas, according to NCI:

  • Stage IIn stage I, cancer is found in the pancreas only.
  • Stage IIIn stage II, cancer may have spread to nearby tissue and organs, and may have spread to lymph nodes near the pancreas.
  • Stage IIIIn stage III, cancer has spread to the major blood vessels near the pancreas and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IVIn stage IV, cancer may be of any size and has spread to distant organs, such as the liver, lung, and peritoneal cavity. It may have also spread to organs and tissues near the pancreas or to lymph nodes.

In treating pancreatic cancer, surgery can be used to remove all or part of the pancreas. The extent of surgery depends on the location and size of the tumor, the stage of the disease, and the patient's general health. Sometimes the cancer cannot be completely removed. But if the tumor is blocking the common bile duct or duodenum, the surgeon can create a bypass. A bypass allows fluids to flow through the digestive tract. It can help relieve jaundice and pain resulting from a blockage.

In addition to surgery, other options - radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy - can be used. (Read about "Radiation Therapy" "Cancer Treatments") Treatment options will depend on how far the cancer has progressed and if the cancer has spread to other organs.

More Cancer Information:

Cancer Check-ups

Cancer Support

Cancer Treatments

Prevention & Detection

Cancer Glossary

For a list of individual types of cancer, see Types of Cancer

All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.

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