Pancreatic Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Pancreatic cancer is the 12th most commonly found cancer globally, affecting men more than women. However, the prevalence of pancreatic cancer in Asian countries is very low. The majority of the cases occur in North America, followed by Europe. 

The peculiarity of this cancer is that it does not manifest any symptoms during the initial stage. Thus, the diagnosis happens mostly during the advanced stage. A good understanding of this condition and identifying the risk factors is very important for early diagnosis. 

What Is Pancreatic Cancer?

The pancreas is an organ that lies on the lower part of the stomach. The main role of the pancreas is to release the digestive juices and hormones required for controlling blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer occurs when there is an abnormal growth of cells in the pancreas. When this happens, a mass of tissue grows in the pancreas, which can grow into cancer. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Pancreatic Cancer?

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer show up only during the advanced stage. This includes:

  • Pain in the abdomen that radiates towards the back
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Light coloured stool and dark coloured urine
  • Diabetes that is difficult to control
  • Tiredness

How Is Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms Diagnosed?

The below tests help detect pancreatic cancer:

Imaging test

Imaging tests help doctors get a better idea of the internal organs, especially the pancreas. The various imaging tests include CT scan, ultrasound scan, MRI and PET scan. 

Endoscopic ultrasound

In this method, a thin, flexible tube called the endoscope is inserted down the food pipe into the stomach. The ultrasound device attached to this tube provides a clear picture of the stomach and the surrounding areas. 

Biopsy

A small tissue is removed from the pancreas and examined under a microscope to detect cancer cells. This tissue is removed during an endoscopic ultrasound or by inserting a needle through the skin.

Blood test

A blood test is conducted to check for specific proteins present in the cancer cell. However, this test is considered less reliable as a person with cancer may not have the specific protein in their blood. 

What Are The Treatment Options Available For Pancreatic Cancer?

The treatment option for pancreatic cancer depends on the severity of the condition, whether it has spread, and the patient’s general health. Based on this, any of the below treatment options may be prescribed by the doctor. 

Surgery

Depending on the severity of the condition, the doctor will remove the whole or a part of the pancreas. Sometimes the organ around the pancreas may also be removed. This helps to control cancer to a great extent. 

In some cases, surgery may also be done to control the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. This includes unblocking the bile duct or unblocking the first part of the small intestine. These surgical procedures are mostly done as endoscopy. 

Chemotherapy

In this method, medicines are provided as pills or through IV to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is done before the surgery to reduce the size of the cancer growth. Sometimes it is done after the surgery to prevent cancer from recurring. If you are not able to have surgery because of any reason, chemotherapy may be prescribed to control or improve the symptoms. If the cancer is detected very early, chemotherapy can even be used to treat it. 

Radiotherapy

In the case of radiotherapy, high-energy rays are used to kill cancer cells. Like chemotherapy, radiotherapy may also be done before or after the surgery. Before surgery, it is used along with chemotherapy to shrink the size of the cancer growth. Radiotherapy is also recommended to ease the symptoms of an advanced stage of cancer.

In addition to treatment, supportive care is also crucial to ease the cancer symptoms. Supportive care helps ease the problems related to eating and weight loss, pain and any other form of sickness related to the condition. 

Who Is At Risk Of Developing Pancreatic Cancer?

Any of the below conditions can increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

  • Age: The majority of the people diagnosed with this condition are above the age of 45. 
  • Gender: Men are more likely to get this cancer compared to women. 
  • Ethnicity: The prevalence of pancreatic cancer among Asians is low. It is mostly diagnosed in black people. 
  • Substance use: Those who smoke regularly have a greater chance of being diagnosed with this condition. 
  • Lifestyle diseases: Lifestyle diseases like diabetes also increase your risk of developing pancreatic cancer. 
  • Family history: If any of your first-degree relatives have been diagnosed with this condition, your risk of developing pancreatic cancer is high.  
  • Inherited conditions: This includes chronic pancreatitis, hepatitis B infection, cirrhosis and exposure to chemicals like pesticides and certain dyes. 

Conclusion

The peculiarity of pancreatic cancer makes it difficult to diagnose it at an early stage. The condition will be diagnosed only during an advanced stage when the person starts exhibiting symptoms. Thus, if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer or have any of the inherited conditions listed above, it is best to undergo screening regularly. This helps to detect the condition at a very early stage and treat the same without much difficulty.

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