Pancreatic cancer starts in the cells of the duct and spreads into the body of the pancreas. Nearby blood vessels and nerves may be invaded. Without treatment, this type of cancer will spread to every abdominal organ and to other parts of the body, via the lymphatic system. The causes are unknown, but risk factors may include:
- Cigarette smoking
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Advancing age (over 65 years).
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often vague and can appear similar to those caused by other conditions. This means that pancreatic cancer is often not diagnosed until it is quite advanced. Some of the common symptoms may include:
- Persistent pain in the abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Jaundice, if the bile duct is blocked
- Back pain (in some cases).
If pancreatic cancer is suspected, your doctor will refer you for tests. Diagnosis may require the following:
- CT scan – a special x-ray taken from many different angles, to build a three-dimensional picture of your body. A dye may be injected to further highlight internal organs.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – similar to a CT scan but uses magnetism instead of x-rays to build three-dimensional pictures of your body.
- Ultrasound – sound waves create a picture of your pancreas.
- Endoscopy – a thin telescope is inserted down your throat to allow the doctor to see inside your digestive system.
- Laparoscopy – the internal organs are examined with an instrument inserted into the abdomen through a small cut.
- Tissue biopsy – a small sample of the pancreas is removed with a needle and examined in a laboratory.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on your age and general health, the size and location of the cancer, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. You may receive one type of treatment or a combination. Generally, options include:
- Surgery – is used when the cancer has not spread beyond the pancreas. The cancer and part of the pancreas and part of the small bowel are removed in an operation called ‘Whipple’s resection’. Some of the bile ducts, gall bladder and stomach may also be removed.
- Radiotherapy – radiation is used after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the body.
- Chemotherapy – either tablets or injections of anti-cancer drugs may be used after surgery.