Pancreatic Cancer

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a rare structure of cancer which develops in the pancreas. The pancreas is a leaf-shaped organ, which is part of the digestive system, is responsible for producing digestive juices and insulin. Pancreatic cancer is very rare in young people and tends to affect individuals over the age of 50, with 75 percent of cases affecting people over the age of 65. Around 7,000 cases of pancreatic cancer are detected in the UK each year.

Types of pancreatic cancer

There are different types of pancreatic cancer, but the most common form of pancreatic cancer is ductal adenocarcinomas. Most cases of pancreatic cancer occur in the head of the pancreas.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

The specific reasons why individuals develop pancreatic cancer is unknown, though some risk factors are thought to play a role. These include:

  • Age: pancreatic cancer is very rare among young people, with 75 percent of cases affecting people over the age of 65
  • Smoking: it is approximated that 1 in 5 cases of pancreatic cancer are linked to smoking
  • Family history
  • Being overweight
  • Medical conditions: certain medical conditions, including diabetes and chronic pancreatitis, may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be quite general and may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Back pain
  • Jaundice
  • Abdominal pain

Jaundice can cause yellowing of the skin and eyes, dark urine, pale stools and itching.

Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Diabetes
  • Fever (high temperature)
  • Shivering
  • Nausea
  • Changes in bowel movements

How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed?

The first step is to visit your GP if you feel unwell or believe you have appropriate symptoms. They will ask you questions about relevant symptoms, carry out an examination and possibly undertake a urine or blood test. If your GP thinks you may have pancreatic cancer they will transfer you to a pancreatic cancer specialist for further tests that will be performed in hospital. Further tests for pancreatic cancer may include:

  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Laparoscopy
  • Biopsy

The results of all the tests will be investigated by doctors to enable them to reach a fixed diagnosis.

What treatments are available for pancreatic cancer?

If cancer is diagnosed at an early stage surgery will almost always be carried out to remove part or all of the pancreas. If cancer is diagnosed at an advanced phase surgery is usually not possible and other treatments will be used, including radiotherapy and also chemotherapy. The plan of action prescribed for your individual case will be drawn-up and based on a number of factors, including the individual's general wellbeing and the stage and size of the cancer.

What is the outlook for pancreatic cancer?

The outlook depends heavily on when the diagnosis is made. Unfortunately, many cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage and therefore the prognosis is not very good. Only 5 percent of people found to have pancreatic cancer carry on for at least five years following diagnosis.

Living with pancreatic cancer

Living with pancreatic cancer is very complicated, especially if your prognosis is not good. You may struggle to even acknowledge that you have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and find that you experience a mixture of emotions. If you need support, advice or information, you can get in touch with one of the cancer charities operating in the UK, who have a wealth of experience in helping people with cancer.

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