Information on Pancreatic Cancer:
Pancreatic cancer can develop in any part of the pancreas, but tumours found in the head of the pancreas are much more common than those found in the body or tail of this organ. Cells on the inner lining of the ducts of the pancreas are the usual site for abnormal growth and result in a type of cancer known as adenocarcinoma.
Other types of pancreatic cancer such as islet cell tumours are much rarer and respond quite differently to treatment. Your doctor should be able to answer any questions about these forms of pancreatic cancer.
The causes of pancreatic cancer
Scientists have not identified the exact causes of pancreatic cancer, but have shown that older people are much more at risk than younger people. It is rare to see pancreatic cancer in people under 50 years old.
Other factors that can increase your risk of pancreatic cancer are cigarette smoking and chronic pancreatitis, a condition where the pancreas becomes irritated and sometimes enlarged.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer may take some time to develop, which illustrates the value of early detection, but when they become apparent they may include the following:
- Jaundice – where the skin and whites of the eyes become yellowed. This can happen if the head of the pancreas is the site of the developing tumour. As the tumour grows it can block the bile duct, preventing bile from leaving the liver and entering the small intestine – on its way out of the body. This also results in pale bowel motions and dark yellow urine.
- Vague discomfort or pain in the upper abdomen, which can sometimes be felt in the back. In the earlier stages, the discomfort may not be present all of the time, but it eventually returns. Some patients find that the pain is reduced by sitting up or leaning forward.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Reduced or loss of appetite.
- Reduced energy and tiredness – if the pancreatic cancer is an islet cell tumour, it can affect the amount of insulin your pancreas produces. This can result in low blood sugar levels that can even cause spells of dizziness.
Although these symptoms can be the result of other medical conditions, it is important that you consult your doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of them.
Methods of diagnosis
Having taken your medical history and conducted a physical examination, the following tests can be conducted by your doctor to help diagnose pancreatic cancer:
- CT (CAT) scan – Which can also be used to help conduct a biopsy with more precision.
- ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography) – Using a flexible instrument called an endoscope that is passed through your mouth, your doctor can inject a type of dye (that shows up clearly on x-ray) into the opening of your bile duct and the duct of your pancreas. This enables him or her to obtain an x-ray picture of the ducts that will show any blockages. If necessary, any blockages can be removed during the same procedure.
- Laparoscopy – a procedure whereby the doctor is able to examine the pancreas under general anaesthetic using an instrument called a laparoscope. If there appear to be any abnormalities, the doctor can also conduct a biopsy at the same time.
- Laparotomy – on occasion pancreatic cancer cannot be accurately diagnosed before investigative surgery is necessary to evaluate the full extent of the condition.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan).
- Ultrasound – which can also assist in obtaining a biopsy.