What is pancreatic cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that develops in the tissues of the pancreas. Located in the abdomen behind the lower part of the stomach, the pancreas aids in digestion. It contains both exocrine glands (which produce enzymes that help the body digest food) and endocrine glands (which produce hormones, including insulin, that help control blood sugar levels in the body).
The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States for 2016 are:
- About 53,070 people (27,670 men and 25,400 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
- About 41,780 people (21,450 men and 20,330 women) will die of pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the US and about 7% of cancer deaths.
What are the different types of pancreatic cancer?
The most common types of pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors called ductal adenocarcinomas, which are thought to form in the pancreatic ducts. About two thirds of all pancreatic cancers form in the head of the pancreas. The other third form in the body and tail. These tumors are malignant, meaning they can invade nearby tissues and organs.
Tumors can also form in the endocrine cells of the pancreas. These types of rare tumors are called islet cell tumors or pancreatic endocrine neoplasms, and most often they are benign. Those that are malignant are called islet cell cancers or malignant pancreatic endocrine neoplasms. These tumors start in small clumps of cells within the pancreas called the “Islets of Langerhans” and are normally responsible for making hormones like insulin. It is important to distinguish between these tumors because each has different signs and symptoms, are diagnosed using different tests, have different treatments, and have different prognoses.
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
Because the pancreas lies deep in the abdomen, a doctor performing an examination on a patient would not be able to feel a pancreatic tumor. Pancreatic cancer has few early warning signs, and as a result, pancreatic cancer rarely is discovered early. Many times the diagnosis is not made until the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. When early symptoms do occur, they are often vague and nonspecific and can be confused with symptoms caused by medical conditions other than pancreatic cancer.
Possible early symptoms that should be evaluated by your physician are:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Digestive problems, including abnormal stools, nausea or vomiting
- Pain in the upper abdomen which can extend to your back
- Loss of appetite
- Sudden weight loss
- Swollen gallbladder (usually found by your doctor during a physical exam)
- Blood clots
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