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Pancreatic Cancer (The Basics)

by Andrea Greengard

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer happens when normal cells in the pancreas change into abnormal cells and grow out of control. The pancreas is an organ that sits behind the stomach. It makes hormones and juices that help the body break down food .

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

  • Pain – People can have pain that spreads from their stomach area around to their back. The pain can come and go, and it can get worse after eating.
  • Weight loss – People might not feel hungry, or might feel full after eating very little.
  • Diarrhea – Bowel movements can look greasy or be difficult to flush in the toilet bowl.
  • Yellowing of the skin, called jaundice – Both the skin and the white part of the eyes can turn yellow. When jaundice happens in people with pancreatic cancer, it is usually because one of the tubes that carry bile from the gallbladder to the intestines is blocked. (The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that stores bile, a fluid that helps the body break down fat.) If a bile duct gets blocked, it can also cause your bowel movements to look gray instead of brown.

These symptoms can also be caused by conditions that are not pancreatic cancer. But if you have these symptoms, tell your doctor or nurse about them.

Is there a test for pancreatic cancer?

Yes. If your doctor suspects you have pancreatic cancer, they will order one or more tests. These can include:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging tests – These might include an ultrasound, a CT scan, an MRI scan, or a test called ERCP (which stands for “endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography”). These tests create pictures of the inside of the body and can show abnormal growths.
  • Biopsy – For a biopsy, a doctor takes a small sample of tissue from the pancreas. Then another doctor will look at the sample under a microscope to check for cancer.

What is cancer staging?

Cancer staging is a way in which doctors find out how far a cancer has spread.

The right treatment for you will depend a lot on the stage of your cancer. Your treatment will also depend on your age and other medical problems.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

People with pancreatic cancer might be offered one or more of the following treatments:

  • Surgery – Pancreatic cancer can sometimes be treated with surgery to remove the cancer. Before surgery, a doctor might do a procedure called “laparoscopy.” In a laparoscopy, a doctor will make small cuts in the belly. They will put a thin tube with a camera on it inside the belly to check whether there is spread of cancer outside of the pancreas.
  • Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is the medical term for medicines that kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.
  • Radiation therapy – Radiation kills cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy – This is the term doctors use for medicines that work with the body’s infection-fighting system (the “immune system”) to stop cancer growth.

Pancreatic cancer can sometimes be cured with treatment. This is most likely in people whose cancer is found at an early stage. Even if your pancreatic cancer cannot be cured, your doctor can treat your symptoms. For example, they can prescribe medicine or a procedure called a celiac plexus block to reduce your pain.

What happens after treatment?

Following treatment, you will be checked every so often to see if the cancer comes back. Follow up tests usually include exams, blood tests, and imaging tests. If the cancer comes back after treatment, you might have chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or immunotherapy. You might also get pain medicine or other treatments to help with pain.

What else should I do?

It is important to follow all your doctors’ instructions about visits and tests. It’s also important to talk to your doctor about any side effects or problems you have during treatment.

Getting treated for pancreatic cancer involves making many choices, such as which treatment to have.

Always let your doctors and nurses know how you feel about a treatment. Any time you are offered a treatment, ask:

  • What are the benefits of this treatment? Is it likely to help me live longer? Will it reduce or prevent symptoms?
  • What are the downsides to this treatment?
  • Are there other options besides this treatment?
  • What happens if I do not have this treatment?

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