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Pancreatic cancer

Pancreas
Biliary obstruction - series

Definition

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that starts in the pancreas.

Alternative Names

Pancreatic cancer; Cancer - pancreas

Causes

The pancreas is a large organ behind the stomach. It makes and releases enzymes into the intestines that help the body digest and absorb food, especially fats. The pancreas also makes and releases insulin and glucagon. These are hormones that help the body control blood sugar levels.

There are different types of pancreatic cancers. The type depends on the cell the cancer develops in. Examples include:

The exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown. It is more common in persons who:

Pancreatic cancer is slightly more common in women than in men. The risk increases with age. Family history of the disease also slightly increases the chance of developing this cancer.

Symptoms

A tumor (cancer) in the pancreas may grow without any symptoms at first. This means the cancer is often advanced when it is first found.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

Exams and Tests

The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms. During the exam, the doctor may feel a lump (mass) in your abdomen.

Blood tests that may be ordered include:

Imaging tests that may be ordered include:

Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer (and what type) is made by a pancreatic biopsy.

If tests confirm you have pancreatic cancer, more tests will be done to see how far the cancer has spread within and outside the pancreas. This is called staging. Staging helps guide treatment and gives you an idea of what to expect.

Treatment

Treatment for adenocarcinoma depends on the stage of the tumor.

Surgery may be done if the tumor has not spread or has spread very little. Along with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy or both may be used before or after surgery. A small number of people can be cured with this treatment approach.

When the tumor has not spread out of the pancreas but cannot be surgically removed, chemotherapy and radiation therapy together may be recommended.

When the tumor has spread (metastasized) to other organs such as the liver, chemotherapy alone is usually used.

With advanced cancer, the goal of treatment is to manage pain and other symptoms. For example, if the tube that carries bile is blocked by the pancreatic tumor, a procedure to place a tiny metal tube (stent) may be done to open the blockage. This can help relieve loss of appetite, jaundice, and itching of the skin.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Some people with pancreatic cancer that can be surgically removed are cured. But in most people, the tumor has spread and cannot be completely removed at the time of diagnosis.

Chemotherapy and radiation are often given after surgery to increase the cure rate (this is called adjuvant therapy). For pancreatic cancer that cannot be removed completely with surgery or cancer that has spread beyond the pancreas, a cure is not possible. In this case, chemotherapy is given to improve and extend one's life.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have:

Prevention

Preventive measures include:

References

Mauro LA, Herman JM, Jaffee EM, Laheru DA. Carcinoma of the pancreas. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 81.

National Cancer Institute. PDQ Pancreatic cancer treatment. Bethesda, MD. www.cancer.gov. Date last modified July 10, 2015. http://www.cancer.gov/types/pancreatic/hp/pancreatic-treatment-pdq. Accessed October 7, 2015.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Version 2.2015. http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pancreatic.pdf. Accessed October 7, 2015.

Shires GT, Wilfong LS. Pancreatic cancer, cystic pancreatic neoplasms, and other nonendocrine pancreatic tumors. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease: Pathophysiology/Diagnosis/Management. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 60.


Review Date: 8/1/2015
Reviewed By: Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.