Pancreatic cancer is caused by abnormal cell growth in the pancreas. There are two basic types of cells within the pancreas - exocrine cells and endocrine cells. Exocrine cells are responsible for making the pancreatic enzymes that aid in the body's digestion. Endocrine cells produce and secrete important hormones into the bloodstream - insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin - which help maintain the proper level of sugar and regulate the level of many other hormones.
More than 95% of pancreatic cancers are exocrine tumors. The other 5% are endocrine tumors, also called islet cell tumors.
Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors
No one knows what causes pancreatic cancer, but there are certain risk factors for its development. Smoking, the most significant pancreatic cancer risk factor, is associated with 25% of cases. The incidence of pancreatic cancer is also higher in African Americans men and people with diabetes, obesity, cirrhosis, heavy metal exposure, a family history of pancreatic cancer, a personal history of chronic pancreatitis and those who have certain gene mutations.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is often called the "silent disease" because pancreatic cancer symptoms are often vague or nonspecific. Symptoms most often occur late in the disease process, at an advanced stage, when the chances of recovery from pancreatic cancer are remote.
Below are examples of pancreatic cancer symptoms, which are common in a number of other illnesses, benign and malignant:
- Abdominal and/or back pain
- Unexplained weight loss and/or loss of appetite
- Digestive difficulties
- Blood clots
These symptoms should never be ignored, and their presence, while not necessarily indicative of pancreatic cancer, should be evaluated by your doctor.
Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis
Because the symptoms are so difficult to identify and can vary greatly from patient to patient, diagnosing pancreatic cancer often proves to be a challenge. A wide variety of tests can be done while trying to make an accurate diagnosis, but there is no standard diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer.
To start out, the doctor will perform a thorough evaluation, including current history, past medical history, family history and perform a physical exam. A number of initial tests will be performed on blood and urine samples. This evaluation will guide the doctor in determining the next step in narrowing the diagnosis in the quickest and most economical manner.
More extensive testing may include x-rays, scans and endoscopic evaluation of the liver and pancreas. Biopsies will likely be necessary to confirm or rule out the diagnosis.
Pancreatic Cancer Treatment
The type of treatment for pancreatic cancer your doctor recommends will depend on the type and stage of the disease when it's diagnosed. Pancreatic cancer treatment is often multi-disciplinary, with expert input from radiology, surgery and oncology doctors. These options are often combined for the best outcome.
Many pancreatic cancer treatments have significant side effects, and care is needed to select the least toxic and most effective pancreatic cancer treatment. In addition, clinical trials are often recommended.
Many patients seek alternative treatment for pancreatic cancer and other cancers, with the desire to avoid catastrophic side-effects common with conventional treatment. Maximizing the patient’s overall health and immune-competence through nutritional support and intravenous mineral and vitamins is very important, but alone are insufficient to battle this disease. Chemotherapy is an essential part of any treatment in these cases. Effective pancreatic cancer treatment alternatives do exist.
Please contact our staff for more information, or to schedule an appointment with our cancer program physician to learn more about treating pancreatic cancer.