At a Glance
- The pancreas is an organ 6 inches long in the abdomen that produces insulin and other hormones and enzymes the body needs to break down food.
- Risk factors include smoking, diabetes, family history of pancreatic cancer, inflammation of the pancreas, and obesity.
- Pancreatic cancer has no early symptoms, which makes it very important for patients to inform their doctors about their risk factors.
Pancreatic cancer is a malignant neoplasm of the pancreas. It is also referred as exocrine cancer.
An estimated 53,070 new cases of pancreatic cancer are expected to occur in the US in 2016.
The pancreas is an organ that is about 6 inches long. It’s located deep in the abdomen between the stomach and backbone. Liver, intestine, and other organs surround the pancreas. The pancreas makes pancreatic juices which contain enzymes that help break down food. The juices flow through a system of ducts leading to the main pancreatic duct. The pancreatic juices flow through the main duct to the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine.
The pancreas is also a gland that makes insulin and other hormones. These hormones enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. They help the body use or store the energy that comes from food.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose in the initial stages as there are no specific early symptoms. The early symptoms often present themselves in an unrecognizable manner and cannot be directly attributed to pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is often detected at an advanced stage and it progresses and spreads quickly. Advanced disease is difficult to treat resulting in low cure rates. Pancreatic cancer can invade other tissues, shed cancer cells into the abdomen, or spread to other organs.
Studies have found the following risk factors for cancer of the pancreas:
- Smoking: Smoking tobacco is the most important risk factor for pancreatic cancer. People who smoke tobacco are more likely than nonsmokers to develop this disease. Heavy smokers are most at risk.
- Diabetes: People with diabetes are more likely than other people to develop pancreatic cancer.
- Family history: Having a mother, father, sister, or brother with pancreatic cancer increases the risk of developing the disease.
- Inflammation of the pancreas: Pancreatitis is a painful inflammation of the pancreas. Having pancreatitis for a long time may increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
- Obesity: People who are overweight or obese are slightly more likely than other people to develop pancreatic cancer.
Early cancer of the pancreas often doesn’t cause symptoms. When the cancer grows larger, you may notice one or more of these common symptoms:
- Dark urine, pale stools, and yellow skin and eyes from jaundice
- Pain in the upper part of your belly
- Pain in the middle part of your back that doesn’t go away when you shift your position
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stools that float in the toilet
Also, advanced cancer may cause these general symptoms:
- Weakness or feeling very tired
- Loss of appetite or feelings of fullness
- Weight loss for no known reason