What is Pancreatic Cancer?
Pancreatic cancer is a tumour that arises within the pancreas.
Although there are various types the most common originates within the cells of the pancreatic ducts 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. The underlying cause for pancreatic cancer remains unknown, but risk factors may include: Cigarette smoking; Chronic pancreatitis; Family histroy; Advancing age (over 65 years).
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms
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:
Computer Tomography (CT) is a special x-ray taken from many different angles, to build a two – dimensional picture in different planes of your body. An intravenous (iv) is usually inserted to enable a dye (contrast) to be injected to further highlight internal organs.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
MRI is similar to a CT scan but uses magnetic force instead of x-rays to build two-dimensional pictures of your body. Like CT, MRI requires iv-contrast.
Ultrasound waves are used to create a picture of your pancreas. This is usually a screening test that then requires either a CT or MRI to be performed.
A thin telescope is inserted down your throat to allow the doctor to see inside your digestive system. It is possible to perform ultrasound at the same time, called endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). EUS enables for high resolution images to be obtained, and if necessary biopsies to be performed under direct vision.
The internal organs are examined with an instrument inserted into the abdomen through a small cut (see section of Laparoscopy).
A small sample of the pancreas is removed with a needle and examined in a laboratory. This is rarely performed through the skin. Most commonly it is done at EUS (see above).
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 is localised to 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.
Radiation therapy can be used in the palliative setting to manage symptoms, or in conjunction with chemotherapy and/or surgery to try and destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the body.
Either tablets or injections of anti-cancer drugs may be used prior to or following surgery.