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What you need to know about pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer related deaths in the world. In the UK, it is the 9th most common form of cancer with roughly 8,000 people each year diagnosed with the disease. Unfortunately, cancer of the pancreas has a poor prognosis at all stages because often the signs and symptoms of the disease are not evident until it is at an advanced stage.

Symptoms and diagnosis

The pancreas is roughly 15 cms long and secretes hormones helping your body process sugar as well as digestive juices to help break down food. Even though the causes of pancreatic cancer are not fully known, there are risk factors that can play a role such as diabetes, ethnicity (being African-American), obesity, chronic inflammation of the pancreas, smoking and family history of cancer.

  • Symptoms

When signs and symptoms do appear, they may include pain in the upper part of the abdomen often radiating to the back, jaundice (yellow skin and whites of eyes), poor appetite, weight loss, blood clots and depression. It is highly recommended that medical advice be sought if you experience any of these symptoms. Note that other diseases and medical conditions can exhibit the same symptoms so the doctor can rule out pancreatic cancer.

  • Diagnosis and stages

If there is suspicion of pancreatic cancer, the doctor may order specific tests such as imaging to look at internal organs, scope for an ultrasound of the pancreas, scope by injecting dye in the ducts of the pancreas and biopsy (tissue sampling). Once the results are in, the doctor will assess the stage of the pancreatic cancer as follows:

* Stage 1 – cancer is contained in the pancreatic organ

* Stage 2 – cancer has spread to nearby tissues and organs and even the lymph nodes

* Stage 3 - cancer has spread to the blood vessels

* Stage 4 – cancer has spread to distant organs such as liver, lungs, and the lining of the abdomen.

Treatment

Treatment for pancreatic cancer depends on the stage, age of patients, health and ‘personal preferences.’ However, the primary goal is to get rid of the cancer. Surgery is an option if the cancer has not spread to the pancreas. Radiation therapy may also be prescribed to remove the cancer cells. The affected person may receive radiation therapy before or after surgery.

Another alternative is to combine radiation and chemotherapy treatments. When this is not possible, doctors try to contain its growth or prevent it from spreading. Chemotherapy involving the use of drugs to kill cancer cells may also be prescribed whether as an injection in the vein or oral medication. It is also possible to combine chemotherapy with surgery for as long as the cancer has not spread to distant organs. However, when it is at a very advanced stage and if any intervention will not benefit the patient, the doctor will help relieve symptoms to make the patient as comfortable as possible.

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