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Everything You Need to Know About Pancreatic Cancer

Discover crucial insights about pancreatic cancer, from its causes and symptoms to treatment options and prevention.

  • 13 Sep 2023
  • 5 min read

Your pancreas typically produces essential enzymes that help break down the food you consume. The other role it is involved in includes releasing hormones that regulate the amount of sugar that should remain in your bloodstream. Understandably, you will experience significant adverse effects when the pancreas gets affected by cancer cells. Swift and appropriate action may help ease pancreatic cancer symptoms, boost your emotional state, and enhance your chances of recovery.


What is Pancreatic Cancer?

This type of cancer develops when your pancreatic cells lose their normal functioning power, leading to uncontrolled growth. This abnormal increase in cell numbers results in the accumulation of cancerous cells, forming a tumour mass. These malignant tumours indicate their capacity to grow and spread to distant areas of your body. As the tumour progresses, it can hinder your pancreas' proper functioning, invade nearby blood vessels and adjacent organs, and eventually spread to remote body locations through metastasis. Pancreatic cancer is detected late, often when it has spread rapidly, and has a poor prognosis.


Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer

So, what are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer? You can take appropriate medical action if you know them. The following are some symptoms to look out for:

  • Chills, sweats, and unexplained fever
  • Stool may float, seem oily, smell particularly bad, and have an odd colour as your body is not digesting fats properly
  • Experience discomfort in your upper abdomen, back, or arms as the cancer grows and puts pressure on nearby structures
  • Feel a burning sensation in your stomach or other discomfiture in your gastrointestinal tract
  • Loss of weight for no apparent reason, which can progress rapidly
  • Notice your stomach feeling bloated
  • Feel nauseous and tend to vomit
  • Painful swelling in the arm or leg can occur from blood clots

Causes and Risk Factors of Pancreatic Cancer

By knowing what is pancreatic cancer and its causes and risk factors, you can take adequate steps to stay healthy. The following is a commonly known list of causes and risk factors of pancreatic cancer.

Men are more often diagnosed with cancer compared to women. Having diabetes for a prolonged period or developing new-onset diabetes in adulthood can raise the risk of cancer. Smoking tobacco can double or triple your chances of developing cancer. Alcohol abuse, leading to repeated pancreatic inflammation, also contributes to the risk. 

Your risk is higher if your family has a history of cancer or genetic conditions linked to other cancers. Genetic counselling may be worth considering if your family history involves cancers with shared genetic mutations.

Your likelihood of developing cancer rises as you get older. Most pancreatic cancer patients are over 45 years old, with 90% older than 55 and 70% older than 65. Black individuals have a higher risk of cancer than Asian, Hispanic, or White individuals. Those of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage also face an elevated risk.

A diet high in fat and obesity are linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. 

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

The following are some of the most commonly known types of pancreatic cancer.

Endocrine pancreatic tumours, also termed pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (PNETs) or islet cell tumours, emerge from the endocrine pancreas, wherein hormones such as insulin are produced and released into the bloodstream. 

Cancer that starts from acinar cells at the tips of the ducts producing pancreatic juices is typically detected more often in younger individuals than in adenocarcinomas. This cancer type grows slower and usually has a more positive outlook. 

Pancreatoblastoma often affects children and is sometimes linked to genetic conditions such as Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). Regarding exocrine pancreatic cancer, more than 80% are adenocarcinomas, mainly ductal adenocarcinomas. These cancers form in the cells lining the pancreatic ducts. 

Pancreatic Lymphoma can develop in various parts of the body, given the widespread nature of the lymphatic system. Cystic tumours result in fluid-filled sacs within the pancreas. 

While most pancreatic cysts are harmless, certain cystic tumours can transition into malignant growths. Pancreatic cancer belongs to the exocrine category; it develops from cells that produce pancreatic digestive juices.

Also read:

Stages of Pancreatic Cancer

The following are the known stages of pancreatic cancer.

At Stage 0, irregular cells are detected in the pancreas lining, which can potentially transform into cancerous cells and infiltrate the surrounding normal tissue. Moving on to Stage I, the cancer is restricted to the pancreas. This stage is further divided by the size of the tumour. 

In stage IA, the tumour measures 2 centimetres or smaller. In Stage IB, the tumour surpasses 2 centimetres in size. As pancreatic cancer advances into Stage II, the cancer might have extended to adjacent tissues, organs, or lymph nodes near your pancreas. This stage is categorised by where the cancer has spread. Stage IIA indicates that cancer has invaded nearby tissues and organs but has not reached nearby lymph nodes, major blood vessels, nerves, or distant organs. 

In Stage IIB, the cancer has reached nearby lymph nodes and potentially neighbouring tissues and organs. However, it has not spread to distant organs, major blood vessels, or nerves. Progressing to Stage III, the cancer has advanced to involve the major blood vessels close to the pancreas and may have impacted nearby lymph nodes. However, it has not reached distant organs.

By the time Stage IV is reached, the cancer's size varies, usually spreading to organs such as the liver, lungs, and peritoneal cavity. It may also have affected lymph nodes, neighbouring organs, and tissues surrounding the pancreas. 

How is Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosed?

The cure for pancreatic cancer begins with diagnosing its stage and the possibility of a remedy. The following are some standard tests used to diagnose pancreatic cancer.

  • Dye injection for X-ray visualisation of bile ducts
  • Tissue samples are extracted for microscopic examination and cancer confirmation, often through biopsy
  • The doctor assesses jaundice, abdominal changes, and pain
  • In Computed Tomography (CT) scans, X-rays from different angles create internal images, aiding tumour assessment and evaluation of its spread


How is Pancreatic Cancer Treated?

It is essential to know that several treatment options are available for pancreatic cancer. The treatment choice depends on the stage the cancer is in and the patient’s needs. Remember that addressing symptoms and managing the side effects are crucial aspects of the care plan.

Immunotherapy aims to bolster the body’s immune system's capacity to combat cancer. A patient’s treatment plan may involve combinations tailored to their specific condition. In cases where surgery is viable, it typically entails the removal of portions of the pancreas and adjacent tissues. Surgical oncologists possess expertise in cancer surgery; however, it is important to acknowledge that only around 20% of patients meet the criteria for surgery, given diagnoses of pancreatic cancer at advanced stages. Engaging in detailed conversations with the healthcare team is crucial for well-informed decisions. 

Targeted therapy focuses on specific cancer-related genes or proteins. Radiation therapy employs high-energy rays to eradicate cancer cells and is often coupled with chemotherapy. This treatment can be administered traditionally over the course of weeks or through shorter, targeted sessions. Chemotherapy employs medication to halt the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy treats cancers by using one or more anti-cancer drugs as part of a standardised chemotherapy regimen. 

Chemotherapy is administered to cure the patient completely, prolong life, or alleviate symptoms. When pancreatic cancer is advanced, and no treatment is likely to have any benefits, the doctor will focus on palliative care or symptom relief to keep the patient comfortable for as long as possible.

It is critical to manage potential side effects throughout the treatment journey. After surgery, recovery involves rest and exercise. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may bring about side effects such as fatigue, skin reactions, and gastrointestinal issues. Be aware that targeted therapy and immunotherapy can have their specific side effects. Regular conversations with healthcare providers are essential to effectively managing these effects and ensuring the best possible outcome of the treatment.


Can Pancreatic Cancer Be Prevented?

If you are wondering what is pancreatic cancer and the fail-proof method to prevent it, the answer is, there is none! Only by knowing the risk factors and working towards reducing them can pancreatic cancer be controlled to a certain extent.

  • Smoking doubles the risk of cancer and contributes significantly to exocrine pancreatic tumours. Quitting smoking is crucial for reducing the risk significantly.
  • Vitamins B12, B6, and folate can lower the risk of cancer. Obtaining these nutrients from your diet is better than relying solely on supplements.
  • If you are overweight or diabetic, the chances of cancer increase. Strive for a balanced weight through a well-rounded diet and regular physical activity.
  • Make fruits, vegetables, and whole grains a priority in your diet. Opt for healthier protein sources such as beans, poultry, and fish.


The pancreas, a multitasking organ, is highly significant in both digestion and blood sugar regulation. Overcoming pancreatic cancer necessitates resilience in the face of physical discomfort and emotional upheaval. The treatment options are diverse: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Always work towards reducing the risk factors to enhance overall well-being. Most importantly, invest in a good health insurance policy to be financially secure during stressful times, such as battling cancer.

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